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Diet & Nutrition

Do we need breakfast or not?

It used to be touted as the most important meal of
the day, but there is new thinking that disagrees.

By Sara Bunny
Whether you like something hearty soon after you wake, consider yourself a 10am nibbler or can't stomach anything more than a cuppa before midday, you will have heard about the benefits of eating a good breakfast.
But with a growing number of experts starting to question the hype, we can't help but wonder if the most important meal of the day is still all it's cracked up to be.

Eating breakfast vs not eating breakfast

In Victorian times, the morning meal reigned supreme, and the message was simple: 'Breakfast like a king and dine like a pauper'. It's a saying that has stuck through the ages, but everything from the Western trend towards widening waistlines to the increasing popularity of intermittent fasting has caused breakfast to come under scrutiny.
In a 2013 study, scientists from New York's Cornell University looked at the overall calorie intake of those who ate a morning meal and those who went without, and found the group who skipped breakfast consumed about 400 fewer calories each day.
In other words, unlike the common belief that those forgoing breakfast will make up the calories later in the day, those who opt out of the morning meal don't eat enough calories throughout the day to make up for breakfast, so their overall calorie intake is lower. Another piece of research, a Canadian health survey involving 12,000 adults, found eating breakfast had no impact, positive or negative, on body mass index (BMI).
Then there's a study from the University of Bath, where scientists investigating the link between breakfast and weight control have said the supposed benefits of the meal are derived from advertising campaigns designed to sell eggs and cereal, rather than solid evidence.
Most of us love breakfast. It's so ingrained in us to like it that we don't want to hear anything bad about our scrambled eggs or our comfortingly familiar bowl of cereal or piece of toast. In a paper published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers noted how nutrition commentators tended to push correlations between skipping breakfast and obesity, even when there were flaws in the reporting of findings.
Last year, Cambridge biochemist Professor Terence Kealey went even further when he wrote an entire book dedicated to taking the shine off the first dish of the day. In Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal, the scientist links breakfast eaters with significantly elevated blood glucose levels, compared to those who wait until lunchtime to eat a meal. According to Kealey, this makes breakfast a possible trigger for type-2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and cancer.
In the book, Kealey says it's not a big brekkie but a pattern of 'time-restricted eating', that will give us sustained morning energy and stable blood sugar. In his preferred eating model, the entire day's food is eaten within an eight-hour window, and early morning grazing is a no-no.
According to Kealey, eating only between the hours of 11am and 7pm can improve cholesterol levels and boost insulin sensitivity, which could help to ward off metabolic illnesses like diabetes. If this sounds familiar, it's because it shares similarities with intermittent fasting, the wildly popular diet promoted by UK specialist Dr Michael Mosley.
But if each new health study has only left you feeling more confused, you're not alone. Breakfast is becoming fraught territory, and when it comes to definitive advice on whether to eat or not to eat, scientists themselves are increasingly divided.
With strong advocates on both sides of the debate and big dollars behind the marketing machine that keeps breakfast in the spotlight, how do we know when we're being fed a lie? The answer lies is listening to your stomach.

Listen and respond to your body

Experts generally agree that whatever you choose, it should be tailored to your own individual needs, rather than based on a diet plan or academic research.
"It very much depends on your age, your level of physicality and your lifestyle," says holistic nutritionist Danielle Roberts."For growing children, getting the right fuel for their brain and body is extremely important. But for an adult going to an office job, who feels like they don't have enough time to eat early in the morning, having something a bit later might be more beneficial, especially if you can eat slowly while sitting down, which is better for digestion."
As for mealtimes, the entrenched beliefs that many of us have grown up with may be doing more harm than good.
"Think about when you were a kid and you weren't allowed to leave the table until you'd eaten everything on your plate," says Roberts. "For generations, we've been overfeeding, and I think that's why some people don't enjoy food as much as they should."
Despite what you might have been told about the importance of your morning meal, it's okay to give it a miss.
"It really comes down to why you're skipping breakfast," says Roberts. "Not feeling physically hungry is one thing, but if you're coming from a mindset of restriction, doing it for the sole goal of losing weight and depriving yourself of nourishment when your body's telling you to eat, it'll trigger the binge-eating effect and you'll crave the wrong things later in the day."
It's a stance backed up by researchers at Boston's Harvard School of Public Health, who found rates of heart attacks and coronary events were 27 per cent higher among men who didn't eat breakfast, and put it down to the link between heart attack risk and eating larger amounts of unhealthy food later on.
Ravenous one morning, yet happy with only a cuppa the next? That's normal, too. Your early-morning hunger levels can be influenced by everything from how much exercise you've done in the days prior, to the type of food you've recently eaten.
"In our sleep, we tap into the body's glycogen and blood glucose stores," explains Roberts. "If you've been eating low-carb meals and exercising a lot, these stores will have been used. In this case, you'll be tapping into your fat stores, which sound good at first, but comes at a cost to the organs and tissues that depend on glucose. Red blood cells use glucose for energy, and the kidneys also utilise it in their processes. The brain needs glucose too, and although it can survive on ketones, the form of fat energy it can use, you will experience impaired function, including lethargy, moodiness and brain fog, and long term, it can even lead to depression."
The jury may be out on the science, but learning to listen and respond to our body's cues is the best way to navigate breakfast. "It's become ingrained in us to eat at certain times, which has come to mean we eat regardless of whether we're physically hungry or not," says Roberts.
"That's where learning to be more aware of the body comes in. If you're physically hungry, eat breakfast; if you're not, leave it for later."

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