Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal?
Why Breakfast Is Still Your Most Important Meal
Achieving health and wellness through diet is a crowded market. Throughout January and February there is a near endless stream of books, articles and products designed to change our relationship with food, remove toxins from our bodies, or somehow rebalance our metabolic systems. Of course most of what is on offer is little more than false promises and disappointment, but the sheer volume of supposedly speedy routes to perfect abs means that it can be hard for individual charlatans to be heard.
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There seems to be two tried and trusted methods for rising above the noise. The first and most reliable option is to already be famous. Celebrity endorsement of a made up diet is a sure fire route to tabloid exposure and book sales, especially if that celebrity happens to be photogenic and willing to share some gratuitous, intimate details of their health ‘journey’.
For the non-celebrities among us, the only real option is to say something that conflicts so profoundly with mainstream advice that it might persuade the media to give you a few valuable column inches. If you are going to attempt this, it helps to have at least a veneer of academic respectability, but if you lack knowledge and experience in the field of nutrition then fear not, because often the relevance of your credentials is not that important.
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As so it is with one of the diet titles that received much media exposure in the vital first month of this year, ‘Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal’ by Professor Terrence Kealey. In this provocatively titled book he challenges the long held nutritional wisdom that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and says that we would all be better off if we simply skipped it. Unsurprisingly many newspapers and media outlets covered this, keen to run sensational clickbait headlines claiming established health advice is wrong and an entire meal occasion is damaging us.
In the book and accompanying media coverage, Professor Kealey says that he believes avoiding breakfast ‘effectively cured’ histype 2 diabetesand we would all be better off skipping this meal. Much of his ‘evidence’ comes from observations of his own condition. After his diagnosis he bought a glucose meter to test his blood-sugar levels and noticed they spiked dramatically after eating in the morning, leading him to believe that breakfast ‘was almost guaranteeing that I would kill myself from a heart attack or stroke.’
So far so scaremongering, and on reading this many of us might be encouraged to spend our mornings food-free. But how good is this advice? And more importantly, if there is any truth in it, why have we been told the opposite for so long?
As usual the reality is far more complex and nuanced than the headlines. Although there are a few studies that support Terence Kealey’s claims, there are many more that point the other way, and as a patient who claims to have ‘cured’ himself, can he really be seen as having an objective view? The emerging field of chrononutrition provides much evidence that regular feeding patterns, including a balanced breakfast, are extremely important in influencing our internal body clocks. Skipping breakfast is thought to disrupt this, potentially leading to a number of metabolic disorders including type 2 diabetes and obesity. This is backed up by a number of large studies of people in a real world setting that have shown that avoiding breakfast is associated with many negative health outcomes.
(Related: How to win the breakfast battle)
In addition, although there is little doubt that some choices of breakfast are not the healthiest, labelling any regular meal as dangerous is unlikely to be beneficial when it comes to our dietary health. Even without the physiological benefits, breakfast is important for developing a positive relationship with what we eat. Jane Ogden is a Professor of Health Phycology at the University of Surrey and says, "Eating breakfast is good for many reasons. It establishes a routine of meal eating rather than snacking which is good for habit formation, mindful eating, food preparation and effort, learning to link hunger with eating and being able to ignore the environmental food triggers at work between meals."
(Related: MH's best ever breakfast recipes)
Although controversial views are always more likely to make the headlines, conventional advice on nutrition like Professor Ogden’s is based on systematic reviews of all the evidence, rather than the results of a few cherry-picked studies. Although counter views from seemingly respectable academics might seem compelling, it is probably worth noting that Professor Kealey has been known to air controversial opinions on areas like climate change and the public funding of science, and has a history of tasteless jokes concerning the benefits of young female students.
It is also important to consider if he really has the academic credentials qualifying him to encourage such a dramatic dietary change? Although in the past he has lectured in Biochemistry and was previously vice chancellor of a private university, is that really sufficient? Jane Ogden – ‘‘Being a Professor does not make you an expert in everything. A research history in eating behaviour, obesity, nutrition, psychology or medicine is really needed before a person has the credentials to become an academic expert in this area. Just being called a Professor is not really enough."
Of course this is of little interest to the media, who have moved on from Professor Kealey in search of the next headline grabbing maverick. Those with contrary and controversial views are always likely to get column inches, and as more and more of us get our information from these sources we can be left with a deeply distorted view. Newspapers only cover things that constitute ‘news’, and so there is likely to be very little interest in anyone claiming conventional advice on diet and health is correct.
Video: Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal of the Day?
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