We’ve all heard it before: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” That belief has been pushed by the breakfast industry for a century, urging consumers to load up on cereal, bacon and orange juice at the grocery store.
But, surprisingly, science is still debating breakfast — not only how it affects our health and weight, but if it’s even necessary.
So … should you skip your next breakfast?
Ultimately, the choice comes down to your diet and individual health needs. But, to make the most informed decision, it’s important to understand the history of breakfast and how skipping your morning meal can impact your body.
Kellogg’s Kicked Off the Modern Breakfast
You know that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” idea? Well, it hasn’t been common wisdom for terribly long. In fact, prior to the 17th century, breakfast was largely frowned upon. The Romans only believed in eating one large meal a day, which influenced eating habits long after. And in the middle ages, many didn’t eat before morning Mass.
Then, around the 17th century, breakfast came into vogue. The wealthy started to enjoy coffee, tea and foods like scrambled eggs, which were easy to prepare. In the middle of the century, they even started adding breakfast rooms into their homes.
But it wasn’t until 1917 that dietitian Lenna Cooper first suggested breakfast was the most important meal of the day. She detailed her argument in an article for Good Health magazine, which was published by a sanitarium run by none other than Dr. John Harvey Kellogg.
Yes, that’s the same Kellogg who, with his brother, invented and mass marketed the world’s first corn flakes. In fact, Dr. Kellogg also edited Good Health magazine.
That might seem surprising, but marketing teams did wonders for breakfast’s reputation in the early 20th century. For example, in the 1920s, the Beech-Nut Packing company hired Edward Bernays, known as the father of public relations, to sell bacon. Bernays went to work. First, he managed to get a doctor to agree that bacon and eggs were healthier options for breakfast. He then sent this statement to about 5,000 doctors to sign. Finally, he worked with newspapers to publish the results as if they were part of a study. This gave fuel to the rising belief that eating breakfast was a medical necessity.
However, it wasn't until 1944 that breakfast cemented its place as the day’s most important meal. That’s when Grape-Nuts (a breakfast cereal) launched the campaign: “Eat a Good Breakfast-Do a Better Job." As part of this promotion, Grape-Nuts handed out pamphlets and blared radio ads that proclaimed: "Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day."
The rest, as they say, is history.
The Science Behind Breakfast
So, should you skip breakfast? Well, many health professionals are in favor of eating breakfast. It’s been the prevailing recommendation for the past century, after all. And with some good reasons.
1. Eating breakfast may help with weight control. While debated, some studies point to eating breakfast as a method of weight control because it can help with stabilizing your internal clock, and curtailing appetite and snacking later in the day.
In one 2018 review of breakfast consumption and weight management, researchers found positive to neutral support for using breakfast to control appetite. Ultimately, they said it can come down to what you’re eating. Meals with more protein, solid food and calories (greater than 350 calories) helped control appetite when compared to skipping breakfast.
2. Eating breakfast can make you feel better. If you eat dinner between 6 and 8 p.m. and then wait until lunch to eat again, that’s a lot of time without any external fuel. That’s why some people experience dips in blood sugar, dizziness, headaches and difficulty concentrating when they wait too long to eat.
Healthy blood sugar levels are, of course, vital to your health. One 2016 review found that eating breakfast improved glucose and insulin responses throughout the day in comparison to skipping breakfast, although the exact foods played a role. Another study highlighted the value of early time-restricted eating in which participants consumed meals during daylight hours. Think between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. It found that early eating improved 24-hour glucose levels, helped stabilize circadian rhythms … and may even have anti-aging effects, along with other benefits.
Meanwhile, skipping breakfast has also been linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes, in which your body isn’t able to use insulin to store glucose (blood sugar) properly. This causes your blood sugar levels to build up and can lead to a number of serious health complications.
So there are a few studies to support breakfast consumption and better physical health. But eating breakfast can also boost your overall sense of wellbeing. One study found that a small breakfast eaten before exercising can benefit your mood afterward.
The bonus? According to one 2014 study, we tend to make healthier food choices when we’re happy. That means the feel-good feeling you have after breakfast could ultimately lead to a better diet.
3. Your body can log a skipped breakfast as a stressful event. Finally, when you skip your morning meal, it could disrupt your body’s internal clock. Studies show that meals help synchronize our clocks, including how we release hormones and metabolize fat, so unusual eating times may result in unhealthy outcomes.
Cortisol imbalances can lead to a number of health risks, including weight gain, diabetes and more. (To find out what your cortisol level is at home, click here.)
Now, let’s talk about why some people prefer to skip breakfast.
The Science Behind Skipping Breakfast
Recently, fasting has become a popular topic in wellness circles. And some research backs up the health benefits.
1. Skipping breakfast can help with weight control. In a 2019 meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials, researchers found a small difference in weight favoring participants who skipped breakfast. This study suggests that eating breakfast might not be a good strategy for weight loss and could actually cause weight gain.
Another study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined 17 healthy adults who skipped breakfast and found people can burn more calories on days they skip the meal. However, they noted this may increase inflammation. And since chronic inflammation can affect insulin sensitivity, it’s possible that skipping breakfast could contribute to “metabolic impairment.”
That could potentially raise the risk for obesity and type 2 diabetes. However, further studies are needed. Keep in mind that the researchers only measured inflammation levels after lunch, so skipping breakfast could simply increase inflammation at lunchtime while decreasing it during other periods.
The study also followed adults across three days, so the results say nothing about the health effects of regularly skipping breakfast.
2. Skipping breakfast is a “hormetic stress” event that can benefit your health: As we mentioned in our article on hormetic stress, intermittent fasting or caloric restriction may provide the type of stressful event that kicks off an adaptive response. This can actually increase your resilience to stress down the line.
Hormetic stress experts theorize that we adapted to common stressors such as food scarcity as we evolved — so those triggers “became integral parts of who we are.”
For example, in two observational studies, intermittent fasting was linked to reduced instances of coronary artery disease and diabetes. And one 2017 review underscored that it can extend lifespan and aid in the fight against cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases (think Alzheimer's and Parkinson's) in animals. It can even slow the progression of cancer in those models.
But keep in mind: As with other forms of hormetic stress, this is not for everyone. There are possible risks, especially for those with medical conditions or who are elderly or pregnant. Remember to practice any caloric restriction with the oversight of a healthcare professional.
3. Skipping breakfast can cut out the sugar and refined carbs found in typical dishes. Sugary breakfast cereals are a classic. Although some say a healthy serving shouldn’t go over 10 grams of sugar, the average box of cereal can hold 19.8 grams of sugar for every serving. Then just think of the other breakfast staples that hold sugar: muffins, yogurt with fruit, orange juice, toast with jam, pancakes with syrup … the list goes on.
Ultimately, breakfast can be packed with too much sugar, with too many processed and refined carbohydrates. After all, these dishes are convenient. Most don’t need to be cooked or cooked for long. And they don’t go bad quickly.
Think of jammy toast or cereal. These foods cut down on time when you’re rushing out the door. Unfortunately, they just aren’t healthy. They spike your glucose, which will spike your insulin. So skipping breakfast can be the healthier option when you’re eating these types of processed foods.
In one 2018 study of 527 adolescents, breakfast skippers showed better health-related quality of life and lower levels of stress and depression than breakfast eaters who ate a poor or very poor quality breakfast.
The Type of Food Matters
While researchers continue to debate the merits of eating breakfast, one thing is clear: The type of food you eat matters.
So, while we continue to learn more about how our meals affect our health, it’s a good bet to lean into a breakfast made up of a quality protein source, fiber-rich vegetables and healthy fats.
If it’s too difficult to make in the morning, remember that it may be fine to skip breakfast for some people.
Dr. Ioana Bina, M.D., on our scientific advisory board tells us that: “For thousands of years, the cortisol awakening response has been our natural breakfast, pushing glucose into our bloodstream and getting us ready for the day. So there doesn’t seem to be a need to add even more food. If you want to lose weight and improve your metabolic health, you might want to limit the insulin spikes per day. Managing your stress and skipping breakfast can be a good test. Listen to your body and see if it benefits you.”
A Note of Caution
Of course, skipping breakfast is not for everyone.