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Is breakfast bad for your health?

by Sue Quinn
Is breakfast bad for your health?
Image: Martin Poole

Breakfast like a king and dine like a pauper,’ goes the saying. It certainly seems logical to fill our stomachs  in the morning to get the energy we need for the day. Official dietary advice also tells us that breakfast supplies vital nutrients, reduces the risk of snacking on junk food and can even help us keep our weight down.

But breakfast’s status as the most important meal of the day is being questioned. A new book by a leading British scientist argues that eating soon after we wake up is actually bad for our health. And recent research into the importance of breakfast suggests there  is no hard evidence to prove that it’s as  vital as is commonly claimed.

Put down that cereal bowl

Breakfast as we know it didn’t really exist for large parts of history; it wasn’t until the 17th century that all social classes began to eat it in the UK. The Industrial Revolution in the 19th century further normalised breakfast, as labourers needed a sustaining meal before they left for work. The invention of flaked cereal by the Kellogg brothers in the early 20th century introduced the idea of breakfast to an even wider audience – for the first time it could simply be poured from a box.

But Professor Terence Kealey, an Oxford-educated biochemist, former Cambridge University lecturer and former vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, is firmly anti-breakfast. The 65-year-old wrote his controversial new book, Breakfast Is A Dangerous Meal (Fourth Estate, £12.99) after being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes in 2010. He is now convinced that skipping breakfast helped him effectively ‘cure’ his condition, and that everyone should do so for the sake of their health and waistlines.

Professor Kealey argues that breakfast is harmful for many reasons – it increases the number of calories we consume in a day and triggers hormones that give us hunger pangs mid-morning and late afternoon, prompting us to snack. But his main concern is that eating breakfast aggravates metabolic syndrome, a cluster of potentially fatal conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. ‘And in

fact it’s true that many people are naturally not hungry in the mornings,’ Professor Kealey says. ‘I believe this lack of hunger is an evolutional adaptation to protect us from eating in the mornings.’

He is particularly damning of sugary breakfast cereals (‘the actual devil incarnate’) and foods like muffins, pastries and other sugary carbs. In fact, any food we eat soon after waking, even the healthy stuff, can trigger spikes in our blood-sugar levels that, over time, predispose us to metabolic syndrome, he says. He also points out that most research in support of breakfast is flawed, or funded by breakfast food companies – who have a vested interest in encouraging us to eat in the morning.

The case for breakfast

Kealey’s argument is controversial; he even suggests that children should skip breakfast if they’re not hungry. And fellow scientists don’t necessarily echo his strident views. Dr James Betts, associate professor in nutrition and metabolism at Bath University, leads the Bath Breakfast Project – a study into whether breakfast is key for health. He believes the issue is too complex to simply say that breakfast is bad: the truth is, no one really knows. ‘Based on hard evidence, there’s no absolute case against breakfast and there’s no absolute case for it,’ he says.

But Dr Betts’ research does suggest that breakfast might not be as important as commonly claimed. Contrary to popular belief, eating a morning meal does not ‘kick-start’ your metabolism, he says, and going without does not lead to overeating or snacking later in the day. People who eat breakfast are more likely to be more physically active in the morning, but there’s little evidence you will gain weight if you don’t eat it. ‘Breakfast may or may not be the most important meal  of the day, but it is certainly an important meal to investigate further,’ Dr Betts says.

Skipping breakfast is also increasingly popular among followers of ‘intermittent fasting’ – a diet plan that involves short bouts of eating little or nothing with periods of eating normally, and which some evidence suggests may be an effective way to lose weight and reduce the risk of conditions like diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Broadcaster and medic Dr Michael

Mosley is a fan of the 5:2 diet, which involves five days of eating sensibly and two of restricted calories. Other versions include the 16:8 diet, which involves fasting for 16 hours and only eating within an 8-hour window – a method praised by Professor Kealey.

But the UK’s official health advice is to eat breakfast. The NHS Choices website ‘does not advise completely starving your body of all nutrition before 12pm each day’, adding that breakfast delivers crucial energy and nutrients.

Some dieticians believe the only scientifically proven way to control your weight and stay healthy is to stick to three balanced meals each day. ‘Breakfast has been linked to helping people control their weight, improve concentration and performance and it aids in ensuring that we have a more nutritionally complete diet, provided the choices are healthy and balanced,’ says Junee Sangani, a registered dietitian specialising in diabetes, and a spokesperson for the British Dietetics Association (BDA).

She adds that there’s plenty of ‘good evidence’ to show that starving our bodies can cause muscles to break down and tempt us to reach for junk food. ‘Continuously skipping breakfast can turn into a habit  that is often hard to break and it’s not  a healthy one,’ she says. ‘Having a healthy balanced breakfast routine will help you maintain a healthy weight.’

The bottom line? Frustratingly for those of us who strive to eat a healthy  diet, scientists can’t agree on whether breakfast is important for good health, although it does appear it’s not as important as previously claimed. What is known for sure is that more research is needed and that sugary cereals have little place on the breakfast table. At least that’s a start.

Can’t imagine skipping breakfast? These healthier breakfast recipes will get your day off to a flying start…

Tropical smoothie

Scrambled egg wrap

Coconut and date breakfast squares

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