How many times have you been reminded to start your day off right with a healthy breakfast? And how many times have you slept late, felt too rushed, and held off on eating anything before noon? For us, it's too many to count.
But when we skip an a.m. meal, we’re all too easily tempted by the glazed doughnuts on the conference table or those flaky pastries at Starbucks. Is it better for our health to forego those sugary treats and skip breakfast altogether, or pick up a dozen from Dunkin' when we're in a rush?
The Benefits of Breakfast
Avoiding the added calories and sugars from that doughnut and skipping breakfast altogether must be the lesser of two evils, right? Not so fast. “When we skip breakfast, we are actually doing a major disservice to our bodies,” says Maya Bach, LDN, owner at River North Nutrition in Chicago. “Your body is ‘fasting’ all night, so in the morning, your body needs fuel to start revving up our metabolism. And without food as fuel, our bodies aren’t able to function at peak performance.”
“It's better to eat something than nothing in the morning,“ says Lindsay Joe, RDN, a Greatist expert. “Our bodies are similar to cars—if we don't have any gas in the tank, performing even the simplest of tasks becomes exhausting and stressful on the body.“
What's more, studies show that eating a consistent breakfast is associated with the reduced risk of health consequences like obesity and hypertension.Breakfast frequency and quality may affect glycemia and appetite in adults and children. Pereira MA, Erickson E, McKee P. The Journal of Nutrition, 2010, Dec.;141(1):1541-6100. Breakfast frequency and development of metabolic risk. Odegaard AO, Jacobs DR, Steffen LM. Diabetes Care, 2013, Jun.;36(10):1935-5548. The National Weight Control Registry also found that of individuals who have lost weight and kept it off, 78 percent eat breakfast every day. And another study found that men who consistently ate breakfast reported a decreased appetite at lunch.Breakfast consumption affects appetite, energy intake, and the metabolic and endocrine responses to foods consumed later in the day in male habitual breakfast eaters. Astbury NM, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. The Journal of Nutrition, 2011, May.;141(7):1541-6100.
“While a doughnut isn’t the ideal fuel for your body, it will at least jump-start your metabolism, helping your body and brain get moving,“ Bach says. “If you eat nothing, chances are you will feel tired, sluggish, and have low energy throughout your morning.”
Of course, this isn't a free pass to hit up the Dunkin' Donuts drive-through every morning you're running late. In fact, research is mixed when it comes to the relationship between breakfast and health.
One study suggests that passing on breakfast, or even a late night meal, could be a beneficial form of intermittent fasting if done correctly.Breakfast: To Skip or Not to Skip?, Zilberter, T., Zilberter, E. U., Infotonic Conseil, Marseille, France and School of Psychology, University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK, Front Public Health. 2014; 2: 59. This type of fasting may result in appetite suppression, leading to a lower calorie intake. Another study suggests that, for some adults, skipping breakfast may reduce the number of calories eaten overall compared to those who ate breakfast.Effect of skipping breakfast on subsequent energy intake. Levitsky DA, Pacanowski CR. Physiology & Behavior, 2013, May.;119():1873-507X.
Another reason pass on food first thing? If you're being physically active early in the morning, your early a.m. workout may feel easier without solid food in your stomach that can cause discomfort, Joe says. Just make sure to eat a well-balanced meal the night before that includes fiber-rich carbs and lean protein.
Your Action Plan
If you’re going to #treatyoself, there are some ways to make that doughnut or pastry slightly healthier. “Choose an option that’s higher in protein or fat to help blunt the effect of that sugar high,” Bach says. “Think of peanut butter-filled, pistachio, or coconut-topped varieties. Better yet, carry a few almonds or nuts of your choice with you so you can eat them along with the treats. Still, this isn't an everyday (or even twice-a-week) type of thing—you're still adding extra calories from fat and empty calories from sugars to your weekly intake.
Plus, once you get in the habit, starting your day with a healthy morning meal isn’t as time-consuming as it seems. (We have plenty of quick, excuse-proof recipes that can be assembled in a few minutes or made the night before.) Well-rounded options like these have also been linked to an increased focus and better academic performance in children and teens.The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Katie Adolphus, Claire L. Lawton, Louise Dye. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, Aug 2013; 7:425.
If you have the chance, choosing a doughnut rather than eating nothing at all can jumpstart your metabolism and give your body the fuel it needs. But if you're just not hungry in the a.m., don't sweat it: There are some benefits to forgoing a morning meal as well. In the end, eating a consistent and healthy breakfast is most likely the best way to ensure optimal health and energy levels.