Is Breakfast a Must for Healthy Eating?

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My 17-year-old son is finally showing a glimmer of interest in healthy eating.  And just because he's male doesn't mean he's immune to the diet mentality.  Given our society's obsession with weight, the potential is great for the diet mentality to lurk behind even the most innocent-seeming question about what or how we eat. So when he asks questions like the one above, I always look at it from a dieter's perspective. 

If you look at it from a dietitian's perspective, it's clear.  Studies show breakfast is an important meal; it gives us energy to get through the morning, and we're not distracted by hunger.  Ever try to really focus on something when your stomach is calling?  It's almost impossible.

But from a real-life perspective, eating breakfast depends on two things:  1) Are we hungry? and 2) Can we tell if we're hungry (and if we can, do we care)?

Using Hunger as a Guide

The real life of a 17-year-old male is worth exploring in answering whether we're hungry.  (No, I won't go into the details. :-)).  I'm talking about the fact that many teenagers stay awake into the wee hours, and get up past noon.  My son is definitely one of those. So when he goes to bed at 2 am, and isn't hungry when he has to get up early the next day, I don't push it.  He probably ate within a few hours of going to sleep, and he really isn't ready for another meal yet.  I am confident about this because I know he is clear when he is hungry and needs food. I'm also confident that he usually eats when he is hungry, unless it's not possible at the moment.  If he's going to be in a situation where he won't have access to food, I might push him to take something with him.

With the diet mentality, though, whether we eat breakfast or not usually isn't about hunger.  Indeed, many weight strugglers can no longer even tell when they're hungry and when they're not. Instead, dieters are all about trying to eat as little as they can, regardless of hunger. The different complications of this approach to eating are numerous, but have a common outcome.  We end up with distorted eating patterns and behaviors that don't get us where we want to go.

So bottom line re breakfast: If the reason we're not eating it is to control our weight, we're probably better off trying to get something down within a few hours of waking. 

The rest of us can rely on our hunger cues.  They really are trustworthy.  And we can trust that they'll generally drive us to get something down within a few hours of waking, whether we wake at 6 am or the middle of the afternoon.

What about you?  Do you rely on your hunger cues, and eat breakfast when they tell you to, or does a schedule for eating breakfast — and other meals — work best for you?  If the latter is true, why do you think that is so?

7 Responses (Add Yours)

  • I have much better luck with a liquid breakfast (no, not a euphemism for a cocktail!) But a glass of juice and a really big nonfat cafe’ au lait is appealing no matter how hungry I am; gets me enough energy and a bit of protein, and makes it easier to work out first thing. Then later I either have another small regular breakfast or skip to lunch.

    There does seem to be a lot of research about the importance of breakfast but I’ve never woken up hungry. When I was a kid, I’d have chocolate milk before school just to get something in my stomach. Couldn’t face cereal let alone eggs!

  • Nichole says:

    I also rarely hungry in the morning so usually skipped. Have learned of late that I must get something good in my stomach to get my metabolism revved up for the day. And breakfast is seriously THE most important meal of the day. When skimping on breakfast, and watching calories etc we tend to skimp the rest of the day which I’ve seen inevitably leads to binging in the evening which should be the absolute lightest meal of the day. If we ate less right before retiring, we’d wake up hungry and get our body changing gears so we have energy through the day and we’re tired at night.

  • Susan says:

    I wake up ravenous almost every morning (at 4:45am). We eat dinner around 6pm and I don’t usually have a bedtime snack, so perhaps that’s why. I exercise first thing in the morning, so I’m much hungrier for breakfast and lunch than I am for dinner.

  • marsha says:

    You all bring up good points. Broadly, I think it comes down to normal eating (that’s really what we’re talking about here). In theory, it really doesn’t matter what we eat for breakfast or when we eat it — liquid, solid, high carb, low carb, immediately after waking, a few hours later, etc — if we’re letting our bodies direct us. Lot of assumptions around that statement, which rely chiefly on the experience of a person who is in an ‘optimal’ state — well-fed nutritionally and psychologically, and in good health in other ways — and can recognize what she needs to feel well. Most of us aren’t going to feel well if we go too long before we eat, or if we consistently don’t eat enough during the day so that we end up overeating at night, or if we eat nutritionally-poor foods on a regular basis. So while nutritionists generally encourage us to eat regularly and not get too hungry and eat balanced, nutritious meals, if we’re listening to our bodies, and intent on treating it well (which sometimes requires a little education given all the choices we have — and gives dietitians jobs), we do those things naturally.

    It really is about just doing what’s right for us as individuals and not doing anything (like dieting) that gets in the way of us doing that.

  • James says:

    Breakfast is most important. I never skip my breakfast. Have a good breakfast means have a good day

  • louis jeffries says:

    Good article. The importance of breakfast can not be over stated for people trying to lose or control their weight. As we break our fast we need energy for the day as well as for a boost to our metabolism.

    Hunger is an important factor but if someone is on a radical starvation diet hunger pains are not reliable. As you mentioned it is best to have stable eating habits.

    Good Post.

  • [...] this year, Marsha asked whether breakfast is a must for healthy eating. Tuning into your hunger is the most important internal cue you can follow, she said. I agree. But [...]

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