We’ve all heard the phrase “breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” But who decided that? Why? Sometimes sayings become so commonplace and repeated that we fail to question… is it even true?
What you may not know is the origin of this ode to breakfast: a 1944 marketing campaign launched by Grape Nuts manufacturer General Foods to sell more cereal.
During the campaign, which marketers named “Eat a Good Breakfast—Do a Better Job,” grocery stores handed out pamphlets that promoted the importance of breakfast while radio advertisements announced that “Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
Ads like these were key to the rise of cereal, a product invented by men like John Harvey Kellogg, a deeply religious doctor (Seventh-Day Adventist) who believed that his Corn Flakes would both improve Americans’ health and keep them from masturbating and desiring sex. (Not even kidding. The truth behind the invention of cereal is stranger than fiction! Thank heavens only half of his message made it into the ads.)
Before cereal, in the mid 1800s, the American breakfast was not all that different from other meals. Middle- and upper-class Americans ate eggs, pastries, and pancakes, but also oysters, boiled chickens, and beef steaks.
The rise of cereal established breakfast as a meal with distinct foods and created the model of processed, ready-to-eat foods that still largely reigns. And the industry depends on advertising and convincing you that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Have We Always Eaten Breakfast?
There is a lot of evidence available to end the notion that one should be eating a big meal in the mornings.
Let’s start with the consideration that breakfast, as we know it, hasn’t existed for large parts of history. For example, the Romans ate just once per day at noon — and breakfast was a big no-no. Here’s what food historian Caroline Yeldham has to say on the subject:
The Romans believed it was healthier to eat only one meal a day. They were obsessed with digestion and eating more than one meal was considered a form of gluttony. This thinking impacted on the way people ate for a very long time.
Historians sometimes write that breakfast in medieval Europe was a luxury only for the rich, and considered just a necessity for laborers — or mostly skipped. And while many American colonists ate breakfast, they were reputedly just rushed events that took place only after hours of morning work.
In this light, breakfast is not a meal; it’s a notion, turned tradition, turned trend.
What If They Were Right?
Skipping breakfast has repeatedly been said to increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, unhealthy weight gain, and even obesity. What most people don’t realize is that these claims are largely driven by misrepresentations of only a handful of studies linking breakfast skipping to to negative side effects on blood glucose (sugar), insulin (the hormone responsible for lowering blood glucose), and metabolism (the rate at which you burn calories). While these lines of reasoning may seem relatively straightforward and somewhat believable, this isn’t at all the case.
The reality is, skipping breakfast actually helps your body function in ways that promote safe and effective weight loss, long-term weight management, and overall good health.
Let’s break all of this down a bit.
If you normally sleep overnight, your body’s tendency to burn fat is at its most intense in the morning, as you’ve essentially “fasted” for 6-8 hours. In the fasted state, the body constantly breaks down stored fat and converts it into usable or “burnable” energy. In other words, the body “feasts” on its own stored fat.
Interestingly enough, your body will continue to use stored fat until your fast is “broken” with breakfast. In this light, extending your fast by skipping the morning meal is actually ideal for weight loss and long-term weight management, as the body’s overall fat-burning capabilities are greatly maximized.
To fully comprehend this, you must first understand one simple concept: Breakfast literally means “breaking the fast” that your body undergoes while you’re asleep (basically the amount of time between your last bite of food until the time you eat again after waking).
When we eat, our body derives energy from three main sources: glucose (carbohydrates), fat, and protein. Only two of these are stored for later use, glucose and fat. (The body can’t store protein, so whatever isn’t used right away is converted to glucose.) Glucose is stored in the liver as glycogen, but this space is limited. Once it runs out of space, the excess is stored as body fat. Dietary fat goes directly to the bloodstream, storing whatever isn’t used as body fat.
In the absence of food, your body derives it’s energy from either glycogen or body fat. It will always use glycogen first, because its first job is to remove the excess glucose (sugar) in the blood. As long as there is plenty of glycogen to draw from, it won’t burn body fat.
Enter stage left, the hormone insulin.
Insulin levels determine whether you can access body fat to burn. When we aren’t eating… insulin levels are low. Low insulin levels not only allow access to your body fat, but they actually trigger fat-burning for energy. If they’re abnormally low, then fat is continually burned.
On the other hand, high insulin levels prevent the body from accessing those body fat stores. Insulin inhibits lipolysis (the burning of fat). High insulin levels (which are normal after meals) signal our body not only to store some of the incoming energy, but also to stop burning fat. Chronically high insulin levels can ultimately lead to insulin resistance (aka prediabetes or metabolic syndrome), causing the same effect.
The fact is… insulin is the main driver of obesity and diabetes. Fasting is a very powerful way to lower insulin levels, thus switching your body back into that fat-burning mode. Practicing intermittent fasting on a regular basis can not only reverse insulin resistance (metabolic syndrome), but also help with a myriad of other health issues.
To Skip Or Not To Skip — That’s The Question
My goal here is for you to feel empowered and inspired enough to dismiss some of the “rules” that may have been instilled in your head regarding how, when, and what you should be eating. Because, let’s face it, quite often the expressions that are so deeply woven into our daily lives were never anything more than clever marketing.
And in reality… the presumptive value of breakfast has never been clearly proven, and much of the “evidence” surrounding its overall importance is actually contradictory, not to mention that new, high quality studies continue to come out in support of quite the opposite.
Ultimately, the decision to eat or not to eat is going to come down to personal choice. However, if you struggle with weight issues, have metabolic syndrome (prediabetes) or type 2 diabetes, I highly recommend that you give fasting a try! At the very least, if you feel you can’t go without eating, make certain that you “break” your “fast” with only nutritious foods that are very low in carbohydrates.
To learn more about the benefits of fasting, grab a copy of “The Complete Guide To Fasting” by Dr. Jason Fung. To get informative updates straight to your inbox, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter!
“The Complete Guide To Fasting” by Jason Fung, M.D.