Although there have been countless opinions over the years about the importance of breakfast, researchers studying how it affects overall health are now saying that your mother was right when she told you that it’s the most important meal of the day.
A study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology shows a correlation between skipping breakfast or eating low-calorie breakfasts and having a higher risk of early-stage atherosclerosis.
According to Nancy Sherwood, an associate professor in the School of Public Health’s Division of Epidemiology and Community Health at the University of Minnesota, skipping or eating an insufficient breakfast is part of a “chain of events” that often causes people to get overly hungry later in the day. This tends to lead to overeating and consumption of less healthful foods, which can eventually increase the risk of obesity and cardiovascular risk factors such as fatty deposits or plaque buildups that can clog arteries.
Mark Pereira, a professor of epidemiology and community health in the School of Public Health, said the study contributes to literature showing that eating a substantial breakfast usually corresponds with better overall health.
“It may have some direct benefits to things like appetite control, and it might be a really useful way to achieve dietary guidelines on a regular basis,” Pereira said. “It might be easier for people to get good nutrition when they’re not skipping the first meal of the day.”
Participants in the study who ate “high-energy” breakfasts, or a meal containing at least 20 percent of their daily calorie intake, appeared to have the lowest chance of early stages of atherosclerosis. It’s not about eating an extremely high-calorie breakfast, Sherwood said. “It’s really just balancing calories across the day, which is what we want people to do.”
Susie Nanney, a registered dietitian and an associate professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, noted that because the study was conducted in Spain, the participants were mostly following Mediterranean diet patterns, which are largely plant-based and include mainly lean proteins and more whole grain, which makes a difference.
And Sherwood cautioned that the study should not be seen as offering a cure-all.
“Sometimes people are just looking for the one thing to do that’s going to make the difference in their health and so forth … and it’s not just going to be eating a healthy breakfast alone, but your whole dietary pattern,” she said. “This study is providing more evidence that it’s important to start with a healthier breakfast to set yourself up for a healthier eating pattern throughout the day.”
Sherwood suggested whole fruit, whole grains, eggs and low-fat dairy as good breakfast options. Pereira said that minimizing refined grains, added sugars, and fatty breakfast meat is important, as well. And Nanney said some of her favorite breakfasts include avocado with an egg and a whole-grain English muffin with almond butter, oatmeal with fresh or dried fruit and nuts and a glass of milk, and an omelet with spinach and other vegetables.
Lauren Otto is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.