Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal of the Day?

a caveman is eating his breakfast at bed
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Anyone growing up in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s who watched Saturday morning cartoons saw a zillion mini advertisements disguised as infomercials that hammered home the importance of breakfast.

Animated characters of every type would urge children not to head off to school without eating something. They warned that students who skipped breakfast would have no energy for classes and would likely flunk out, resulting in a punishment, such as not being able to watch those cartoons any more.

It was a brutal strategy, but effective. Nearly everyone now can parrot the “Breakfast is the Most Important Meal of the Day” mantra. And that may be a good thing, since children seem to suffer more negative effects from skipping breakfast than their parents do. The truth, however, is more complicated, particularly for adults.

Conventional wisdom suggests that breakfast provides the energy to do everything else that needs to be done in a particular day. On the other hand, studies are poking holes in that; in fact skipping breakfast may be the best option for some people’s health.

Obviously, the first question to ask is what’s motivating the decision to skip the morning meal. Many individuals wake up starving after a night of calorie-burning sleep; their bodies are urging them to eat something.

Then, after two extra pumps of the snooze alarm and a little extra time in the shower, soon there’s no time for anything except maybe a cup of coffee, which can result in hunger and tenseness by 10:00 AM.

That’s a bad habit, of course. For the most part, breakfast is part of a healthy pattern of behavior that does the trick.

Conversely, if your body is telling you not to eat, it’s probably best to listen to it. In her book “What to Eat,” Marion Nestle became a patron saint of breakfast haters everywhere by diminishing its importance.

The professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University said that she herself does not eat in the mornings, and suggests that others eat only when they are hungry and never when they are full.

Some adults may even benefit from skipping breakfast. For example, those who like to exercise (or simply manage to tolerate it) might find it most effective to do so before eating in the morning.

So the bottom line is that the hype about breakfast is only correct up to a point. Those who wake up hungry should eat something. But if the thought of a scrambled egg and a slice of whole wheat toast sends your stomach into a revolt, don’t force-feed yourself just because you feel guilty about defying your second-grade teacher. Listen to your body, and not just a catchy slogan.

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