How important really is breakfast for a balanced diet?

Summary

There is still time for new year’s resolutions, and maybe you have finally decided to take the time to eat an actual breakfast in the morning. While the benefits of such an endeavour are obvious, we also wondered: is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

29Jan.
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Some people say that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, packed with benefits. Others say they haven’t eaten breakfast in years and are doing much better since they stopped. Most people do not have a breakfast routine and go with the flow: sometimes they eat at home, sometimes they grab something on the way, sometimes they just skip it. How important is breakfast for our health and well-being? The answer is somewhere in between, and we asked Sophie Thierry, a nutritionist and dietician who manages the nutritional side of the Health@Work programme for Danone employees, to tell us what she thinks.

 

Why is breakfast important?

 

First of all, fuelling the machine after an 8 to 10-hour fast seems pertinent on a physiological level. It doesn’t really make sense to break your fast after 16 hours.

Secondly, it is difficult to fulfil 100% of your daily needs without eating breakfast, especially where essential nutrients are concerned. For instance, it is recommended that we eat three dairy products and five fruits and vegetables a day; this is harder to achieve with one less meal.

Breakfast also helps us to feel less tired or hungry during the day; and feeling hungry and tired can drive people to snack or have larger meals. People who eat breakfast even tend to be thinner. There is contradictory data on this specific issue, but it is also common sense: breaking up the intake into portions throughout the day means that we fast for shorter periods of time, and the body thus stores less in anticipation of these periods. Not forgetting that when we eat in the morning, we later burn the calories we have just ingested, which does not happen after dinner. Our bodies spend energy on digesting breakfast.

 

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

 

In France, the Programme National Nutrition Santé (National Programme for Nutrition and Health) recommends that breakfast covers 20-25% of daily energy needs. You know the old saying:

Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper.

Well actually, in terms of quantity, breakfast is important, but it is not quite accurate to call it the most important meal of the day, since lunch and dinner should each ideally account for 30-40% of our daily energy needs. In addition, nutritional balance is built up throughout the whole day, and even throughout the whole week!

In terms of quality, it should ideally consist of four kinds of food: a cereal product, a dairy product, a piece of fruit and a beverage. Of course, this is theoretical – and there is no ideal breakfast. There are endless products and many different combinations. That’s a good thing, otherwise it’d seem rather monotonous!

 

Don’t you think there is a limit to official recommendations? They are not always easy to integrate into our everyday lives and can sometimes seem too rigid.

 

My basic principle is the following: it is up to everyone to adapt their breakfast as they wish, according to their appetite, the time available and their tastes. The priority is to encourage them not to skip this meal, to take into account the difficulties they experience in their lives, ask the right questions and find simple and realistic solutions. Many people are not hungry in the morning, or simply do not have time. They are not going to force themselves to eat. Eating should remain a pleasure! I advise these people to take it slowly, eat lighter dinners in order to build up an appetite in the morning, and start with just one of the food types we were talking about, according to their tastes and possibilities, so that they develop a habit gradually. Theory needs to reflect real life!

In 2010, a French study on breakfast established that 90% of the people who do eat breakfast eat an incomplete one, mostly for lack of time. It is important to know what is theoretically good for you, and then to listen to your own body and its needs. Recommendations should not make people feel guilty! I also advise people to consider breakfast as a real meal: they would not eat the same thing every day for lunch and dinner, and there is also room for change and diversity with breakfast. It helps to create a better nutritional balance. The bottom line is that it’s not all black or white, and of course you cannot maintain a perfect diet every day, but it’s worth a try!

Photo © NatUlrich