Busting the breakfast myth
How good is sitting down to a plate of organic eggs, smashed avo and grilled mushrooms paired with a decent mug of
petrol coffee first thing in the morning? Sounds delish. But is eating breakfast integral to a healthy diet or have we simply become habitualised feeders?
For many adults, the message that breakfast is the most important meal of the day has been drummed into us from an early age. Television commercials, government-funded food guidelines and dietitians are determined to have us believe that a good, healthy diet starts with a morning meal.
But a growing number of experts, and a growing body of research, question the validity of these claims if not reject them all together.
So what is the truth?
Earlier this year, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine Aaron E. Carroll wrote an article for the New York Times questioning the push for breakfast in the media.
He pointed out that much of the data released in favour of eating breakfast was funded by groups, like Kellogg, who had a vested interest.
In fact, the phrase that breakfast is ‘the most important meal of the day’ was a 1944 marketing campaign launched by American company General Foods to encourage people to, you guessed it, buy more cereal.
But probably the most fascinating and poignant argument Carroll makes is how this research was – and still is – targeted towards children.
A good breakfast is regularly touted as being an essential part of their daily routine, particularly because it helps them perform better in school. But as Carroll points out, this research failed to take into account the general nutritional intake of the children being studied.
As Carroll noted, hunger “affects almost one in seven households in America, or about 15 million children”. So it makes sense then that kids who were going hungry at home would respond better when fed in the morning.
Carroll was also critical of studies that suggested kids who skip breakfast were more likely to be overweight than children who eat two breakfasts for the same reason – if you’re being nourished at home, you’re probably not starving at school.
Most important, or simply most popular
To give you an overview of how pervasive the breakfast narrative is, here is a snapshot of recent statistics taken in a survey commissioned by the Australian Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers Forum:
- Up to 2 million Australians share photos of their breakfast on social media at least once a week and at least half a million share carefully curated cereals on a daily basis.
- The majority of these “brekkie heads” are men, with gents being three times more likely to believe the world needs to know what they’re eating at any given time.
- Health is the biggest motivation when choosing breakfast cereal, with Australians saying gut health/regularity (38%), satiety (39%) and boosting nutrition (36%) most influence what goes in the bowl each day.
- Fruit, and nuts, remain the most popular toppings of choice for breakfast cereals.
(Incidentally, the survey also found that 1.1 million eat cereal straight from the box and nearly half a million Australians used a mason jar as a bowl. Oh, and more than 300,000 Aussies ate cereal with a fork. Which isn’t weird at all…)
The belief that breakfast is so good for us is so ingrained that it has even seen breakfast supplements being used as food replacements.
In a separate survey conducted by Roy Morgan Research, results suggested that breakfast drinks such as Up & Go were being consumed by people in lieu of protein drinks or energy drinks on the belief that they came with solid nutritional value. This is despite findings from consumer advocacy group Choice discovering that many breakfast drinks not only contained incredibly low levels of fibre and higher than recommended levels of sugar.
Science vs profits
Writing for Good Health (“the oldest health magazine in the world”) in 1917, Lenna F. Cooper stated that “in many ways, the breakfast is the most important meal of the day, because it is the meal that gets the day started.”
Not so coincidentally, Good Health also happened to be edited by Dr John Harvey Kellogg, the father of modern day flaked cereals. To say that Kellogg had an agenda when this was put into his magazine is an understatement.
But it’s also part of a bigger picture surrounding the science of breakfast and how research can be skewed to benefit the aims of the author.
In 2013, a paper published by The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition studied the literature surrounding links between breakfast and obesity. What they found was that scientists showed regular bias in their interpretation of research, favouring the notion there was a link between skipping breakfast and obesity even when no such evidence was apparent.
And only in a 2014 study conducted by Monash University, researchers found that skipping breakfast as part of intermittent fasting not only helped weight loss but also helped blood pressure and various forms of liver damage.
But this isn’t to say breakfast is bad and you shouldn’t be eating it. In fact, if you wake up hungry like those 15 million US school children then you most definitely should be eating it.
But eating it just out of habit? You can probably swap it out for an extra 30 minutes sleep.
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