The Elusive Breakfast Debate

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It’s the new year and more importantly the start of a new decade; save overflowing gyms, new dietary choices are just some of the resolutions people make. And while diet fads come and go year by year, one slogan is here to stay- breakfast the most important meal of the day. 

So is there any truth to the claim

Prior to the industrial revolution and the wars, breakfast was treated as any other meal- neither intentionally shunned nor prioritized. However, there is study after study after study after study to either tell you why you should or shouldn’t be having breakfast. And we most certainly are not trying to disprove this; nonetheless, we review the facts.

Genesis of the conversation

What surprisingly started as a food industry campaign for more sales now actually has scientific backing– well sort of. Yes, we said campaign for more sales. This took place notably following the entrance of women into the workplace in the 20th century. Before leaving for the day’s grind, they had to feed their kids with something nutritious and filling, yet easy to whip up. Prior to this, breakfast was seen as any other meal and the decision to include eggs and bacon was more for convenience and not nutritional or health benefits. The former was a go-to as chickens laid eggs in the morning, the latter was a matter of last night’s leftovers.

Following the industrial revolution that saw people spending hours sitting or standing, indigestion became a concern and hence a lighter breakfast was sought. This was the genesis of vegetarian diets and bland foods such as cereal which actually became part of religious rhetoric. Fun fact, John Harvey Kellog was a religious man who preached his cereal into society. However, Edward Bernays is perhaps the most significant solidifier of the breakfast movement. The Beech-Nut bacon company capitalized on fears from religious debate and indigestion, but their next act was the kicker. The company cemented its claim to the industry when it hired a doctor to agree a heavier breakfast of bacon and eggs was healthier than lighter variation. The publicity really came when the statement was signed by 5000 doctors and published in newspapers.

Break your nighttime fast

Source: Gymshark

One of the biggest proponents for team breakfast is that it jumpstarts the day’s metabolic processes. The argument for this is that when you eat you signal to your body to commence burning calories and thus energy expenditure as opposed to a fasted state which favours restriction. Additionally, Fred Karpe a professor at Oxford Centre for Diabetes… in the BBC Future publication adds that breakfast usually involving carbs is an essential trigger for tissues to respond to food intake. This alludes to the understanding of insulin sensitivity in the early hours of the day and breakfast being key to kick-starting this process. Medical conditions such as diabetes, however, challenge this paradigm. Such instances favour a slowly rising insulin pace; proteins and healthy fat being the preferred choice.

Feel the rhythm

Philosophers and inspirational speakers were not fooling around when they expressed the importance of time management. Time arguably governs all of life, in fact, it governs our bodies. Circadian rhythm is an internally created schedule influenced by external factors that signal the cues to processes, their commencement and finalization in the human body. It is commonly said humans are creatures of habit, well the same can be said of your body. What happens when you break this circle could either be beneficial or harmful. 

A clinical trial involving breakfast-skippers divided into groups of diabetics and non-diabetics surmised that the rise in serum glucose level comes from a disruption in circadian rhythms. Evidently, breakfast is an excellent cue for glucose metabolism; time of day, with respect to insulin sensitivity, must be a factor as well. 

This is to say that the idea that skipping breakfast is a precursor for a higher body mass index (BMI) and the tendency to snack all day long is an oversimplification; more intricate forces of circadian and insulin sensitivity are also at play here. In fact, one study explained the limitation in evidence when correlating breakfast skipping with increased weight. What does this mean? Aberdeen University’s Professor of Appetite had a few things to say in this BBC article.

Be sensitive to your body’s feelings

At this juncture, this phrase “insulin sensitivity” has been used four times already causing you to wonder what it is and why you should care. But before getting ahead of ourselves, what is insulin? Simply put, it is an enzyme that aids in digesting sugar from food (carbs); excess sugar is stored as glycogen in the liver (hepatic glycogen).

Insulin sensitivity refers to how “well” your body responds to insulin secreted by the pancreas; a higher sensitivity means blood sugar stays better regulated and the reverse is the case when the sensitivity is low. Importantly, insulin sensitivity decreases across the time spectrum i.e. higher in the mornings and lower at night. This means sugars and insulin heavy meals ought to be consumed in the morning; hence why late binge eating is harmful.

Life on the Fast lane

Enter, intermittent fasting (IF)… the discipline of occasional calorie restriction that is time-bound; arguably the biggest advocate of breakfast skipping. The regime which involves a feeding window after which the participant fasts for a period boasts gains in correcting diabetic disorders and promoting growth. A 2018 study explains IF’s benefits in the areas of improving insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control. Results in the trial found time-restricted feeding to be on par with blood pressure medication. With all these benefits, why bother with breakfast?

Breakfast is not the enemy

Source: The Sun UK

Oxford-educated Biochemist, Professor Terrence Kealey seems to think so. The type 2 diabetic noticed an unusual spike in glucose levels after an early breakfast but normal levels when he had a late breakfast or lunch. He further goes on to explain an inert system at work within us all termed counter-regulatory surge

The fancy named process kicks in somewhere around 4:00 am; with the aid of growth, adrenaline and cortisol hormones, glucose from hepatic glycogen is synthesized into the bloodstream to get the body ready for the day. The problem with this system is it reduces the action of insulin in the body; hence the crux of Terrence’s argument. 

However, there are a few plot holes with this story… 

The first inconsistency is that the surge he referred to happens around 4 am just before waking up and consequently should not induce insulin resistance later in the morning. Additionally, Oxford Professor Fredrik Karpe says this high level of cortisol is part of the body’s natural rhythm.

Secondly, his argument should have a huge disclaimer for existing medical conditions. And, in that category, it becomes what you eat not just when you eat. Generally, the health consensus suggests foods lower on the glycemic scale as they improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin spikes.

Breakfast is another meal

Photo Credit: Taste

What about dinner? Courtney Peterson (in this BBC article) believes that this just might be the most important meal of the day. She staked her claims on the health risks late dinners posed to parties susceptible to diabetes, obesity and the likes. Additionally, she argued that the only benefit that can be accrued from skipping breakfast would lie in not having a late dinner. What seems to be the case in most instances for breakfast skippers are busy schedules and general forgetfulness; alluding to a general unawareness or priority over one’s health. Conversely, those who intentionally fast intermittently tend to have dinner on time and close the kitchen early.


Source: myVigor

The breakfast debate is reminiscent of the “one part of my body is better than the other” heuristic. No one meal should be over prioritized or neglected intentionally. Furthermore, it is not a one-size-fits-all approach, as we would often say. Existing medical conditions, fitness goals and job descriptions are just a few factors that influence a person’s dietary choices. Importantly, remember you are what you eat. So, be deliberate about dietary choices and always consult a doctor before starting any diet, especially if you have a chronic condition such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease. Other than just what you eat, when you eat is equally as important. As we’ve seen, it would be folly to fast all day long and binge heavy at night. If for any reason your schedule prevents early dinners, prioritize proteins over carbs. 

Remember balance is important!

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