Rise & Shine: The Benefits of Breakfast for Your Health

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Breakfast is often referred to as the most important meal of the day. However, there is still some debate about the benefits of eating breakfast, with some studies suggesting that skipping breakfast may have no negative impact on health.1,2 This has led to confusion among both the general public and healthcare professionals about the importance of eating breakfast. In this article, we assess the benefits of eating breakfast on various health outcomes, including weight management, cognitive function, and cardiovascular health.

Breakfast is the first meal of the day typically eaten in the morning. The word “breakfast” comes from the combination of “break” and “fast,” referring to the period of time between the previous evening meal and the first meal of the day.3,4 Though we may take the concept of breakfast for granted, breakfast used to be reserved for monks and the wealthy. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries that breakfast became more widely consumed among the general population.

The most common breakfast consumed by South Africans is pap, also known as ‘mieliepap’ or maize meal porridge, served with a side of milk, sugar, or butter. According to a survey conducted by the South African Grain Information Service, pap was the most commonly consumed breakfast food among South Africans, with 56% of respondents reporting that they ate pap for breakfast. Other popular breakfast foods in South Africa include bread, eggs, cereals, and oats.5

So, is breakfast necessary to be considered healthy?

A systematic review and meta-analysis was conducted to assess this very question. The analysis included 13 randomised controlled trials and 28 observational studies, with a total of 3,772,322 participants. Eating breakfast was associated with a range of health benefits. Specifically, eating breakfast was associated with better weight management, with breakfast eaters having a lower body mass index (BMI) and lower rates of obesity compared to those who skipped breakfast.1,6,7 Eating breakfast was also associated with improved cognitive function, with breakfast eaters performing better on tests of memory and attention compared to those who skipped breakfast.1,8 Eating breakfast was associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, with breakfast eaters having a lower risk of hypertension, hyperlipidaemia, and coronary heart disease compared to those who skipped breakfast.1,9

Cognitive benefits of eating breakfast for children

  • Improved memory: Children who eat breakfast regularly have better memory recall and recognition than those who skip breakfast. Breakfast may improve memory by providing glucose, which is the brain’s primary energy source. 8, 10
  • Better attention: A review of several studies found that eating breakfast can improve attention and cognitive performance in both children and adults. Breakfast may improve attention by regulating blood glucose levels and increasing the availability of neurotransmitters in the brain.11
  • Enhanced problem-solving skills: Eating breakfast can improve problem-solving skills in young adults. Eating breakfast may enhance cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to switch between different tasks or problem-solving strategies.12

The association between skipping breakfast and metabolic syndrome

People who skip breakfast have a higher prevalence of metabolic syndrome compared to those who eat breakfast regularly.  A study that followed a cohort of 6,550 adults over 16 years found that skipping breakfast was associated with a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome. Specifically, the risk of metabolic syndrome was 1.5 times higher in those who skipped breakfast compared to those who ate breakfast regularly. 9 Furthermore, a systematic review and meta-analysis analysed data from 11 studies and found that skipping breakfast was associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome. The meta-analysis found that individuals who skipped breakfast had a 1.4 times higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome compared to those who ate breakfast regularly. 13

Healthy breakfast options

  • Oats are a great source of fibre and can be topped with fresh fruit, nuts, or seeds.
  • Yogurt is high in protein, which can help you feel full throughout the morning and can be paired with fruit and granola.
  • Smoothies made with fresh or frozen fruit, yogurt, and milk or a non-dairy alternative can provide a variety of nutrients in one glass.
  • Eggs are a good source of protein and can be prepared in many ways, such as scrambled, boiled, or as an omelette.
  • Eating a piece of fresh fruit such as an apple, banana, or pear can be a quick and easy breakfast option.
  • Whole-grain cereals that are low in sugar and high in fibre can be a healthy breakfast option when paired with milk or a non-dairy alternative.
  • Avocado is a good source of healthy fats and can be spread on whole-grain toast for a balanced breakfast.

It’s important to choose breakfast options that are nutrient-dense and provide a balance of carbohydrates, protein, and healthy fats to help you feel full and energized throughout the morning.

So, what is the takeaway message? 

Eating breakfast is associated with a range of health benefits, including better weight management, improved cognitive function, and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 13 randomized controlled trials and 28 observational studies, involving over 3.7 million participants, found that breakfast eaters had lower BMI, lower obesity rates, better cognitive performance, and a decreased risk of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, and coronary heart disease compared to those who skipped breakfast. For children, regular breakfast consumption has cognitive benefits such as improved memory, better attention, and enhanced problem-solving skills. Healthy breakfast options include oats, yogurt, smoothies, eggs, fresh fruit, whole-grain cereals, and avocado, emphasizing the importance of nutrient-dense choices for sustained energy and well-being.

Conclusion

Eating breakfast is associated with a range of health benefits, including better weight management, improved cognitive function, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. These findings suggest that eating breakfast is an important component of a healthy diet. 

References

  1. Odegaard AO, Koh WP, Yuan JM, et al. 2012. Western-style fast food intake and cardiometabolic risk in an Eastern country. Circulation, 126(2):182-88. Available here.
  2. Dhurandhar EJ, Dawson J, Alcorn A, et al. The effectiveness of breakfast recommendations on weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2014;100(2):507-13. Available here.
  3. Oxford English Dictionary. (n.d.). Breakfast. Available here.
  4. Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Breakfast. Available here.
  5. South African Grain Information Service. 2019. South African Breakfast Cereal Survey. Available here.
  6. Betts JA, Richardson JD, Chowdhury EA, et al. 2014. The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 100(2):539-547. Available here.
  7. Timlin MT, Pereira MA, Story M, et al. 2008. Breakfast eating and weight change in a 5-year prospective analysis of adolescents: Project EAT (Eating Among Teens). Pediatrics,121(3):e638-e645. Available here.
  8. Wesnes KA, Pincock C, Richardson D, et al. 2003. Breakfast reduces declines in attention and memory over the morning in schoolchildren. Appetite, 41(3):329-331. Available here.
  9. Cahill LE, Chiuve SE, Mekary RA, et al. 2013. Prospective study of breakfast eating and incident coronary heart disease in a cohort of male US health professionals. Circulation, 128(4):337-43. Available here.
  10. Adolphus K, Lawton CL, Dye L. 2013. The effects of breakfast on behavior and academic performance in children and adolescents. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 7, 425. 
  11. Smith, A. P. 2011. Breakfast cereal consumption and subjective reports of health by young adults. Nutrients, 3(5), 489-499. Available here.
  12. Benefits of Eating Breakfast for Students – AMSB, Kuwait. Available here.
  13. Bi H, Gan Y, Yang C, et al. 2015. Breakfast skipping and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Public Health Nutrition, 18(16):3013–9. Available here.
Spread the health, every byte counts
Wilna Eksteen

Wilna Eksteen

Registered Dietitian

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