About 20% of adults and 30% of children in the UK regularly skip breakfast. Breakfast, it seems, is a meal that can be sacrificed to a busy schedule of commuting, getting to school and managing the demands of 21st century living. It is also the first meal to be ditched when people attempt to lose weight. But what effect does skipping breakfast have on health and well being, and does it really help us to lose weight?
We all need to eat regularly to keep our bodies supplied with energy and other nutrients essential for health. Overnight we experience an 8 -12 hour ‘fast’ as we sleep. If our body is deprived of food for too long it has to draw on its stores to supply the brain and muscles with the nutrients and energy they need to function. We also begin to feel a degree of stress and discomfort as hunger levels rise later in the morning.
Skipping the odd breakfast will not permanently damage health but if it is a regular pattern it can have adverse consequences on body weight, the digestive system, performance at work, and how children learn at school. Children may be particularly vulnerable to the effects breakfast skipping as childhood is a period of rapid growth.
A nutritionally balanced breakfast provides a number of benefits. For example, a whole grain cereal breakfast, with milk and fruit, provides folic acid an essential vitamin for women of child bearing age; fibre which is good for a healthy gut and calcium, a mineral which is essential for the health of bones and teeth. This type of breakfast is also low in fat and contains slow release carbohydrates that maintain energy levels throughout the morning.
What are the best options for a healthy, nutritionally balanced breakfast? There is no rule that says you must eat either cereal or bacon and eggs for breakfast. What is important is that the foods you choose contain a balance of nutrients and have an energy content of between 350 and 450 calories, about a quarter of an adults daily energy intake. Children need less.
A wholegrain cereal made from oats or wheat served with milk and one or two portions of fruit typically contain between 300 - 400 calories and is a good, quick option for most people. A fried breakfast consisting of two rashers of bacon, an egg, tomato and sausage and two slices of buttered toast contains about 800 calories – too many for most people.
Other good breakfast options are grilled bacon and tomato or poached eggs on a bed of wilted spinach served with wholegrain toast.
Many people eat breakfast on the move but beware of doing this because it conflicts with how the gut works. The gut needs a period of quiet and calm after eating to allow digestion to take place. Eating on the move can result in a distressed gut which leads to spasms, pain, indigestion and other gut symptoms.
Skipping breakfast is not recommended as a way of losing or managing weight. This is because prolonged fasting promotes hunger and a tendency for the ‘what the hell effect’ to kick in, leading people to eat anything – usually high fat sugar alternatives to breakfast. In fact some studies have shown that eating the same number of calories as a larger breakfast and a small dinner, rather than a small breakfast and large dinner is associated with greater weight loss, feeling fuller and reduced insulin levels.
So there may be something to the old adage “to eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” after all.