As meals go, breakfast is something of a celebrity. It is one of the most studied, analyzed, parsed, discussed, and advised-about subjects of nutritional science. Never more so than today, as doctors, and nutritionists, and countless articles and academic papers prescribe breakfast as both prophylactic and cure-all: The morning meal is said to stoke metabolism, stop late-night grazing, thwart obesity, reduce diabetes risk, improve nutritional intake, sharpen concentration—even increase longevity. In March, a new study more conclusively linked breakfast with body-mass index, with weight increasing as the frequency of breakfast consumption decreased. Breakfast, it seems, is highly influential: the power broker of repasts.
Yet despite all the fussing over and fetishizing of breakfast, most of us have only the vaguest notion of what we should be ingesting. Each new study of breakfast seems to contradict the last. Are eggs advisable, or will they raise one’s cholesterol? Is a meal of toast anemic or adequate? What is a whole grain, anyway? And most important, are we really making ourselves fatter, hungrier, dumber, shorter-lived, slow metabolizers by not eating a so-called proper breakfast? As the experts continue to debate, most of us shrug and make choices not out of any real knowledge but for lack of time. If we don’t slurp down a bowl of cereal at home, or succumb to the buxom muffin beckoning from the glass case at the deli, then an enormous caffeinated drink with a hyphenated name becomes our de facto morning meal.
Or we have nothing at all. National survey data cited by the Breakfast Research Institute indicates that between 1965 and 1991, the number of adults who regularly skip breakfast increased from 14 to 25 percent. The attrition of breakfast-eaters is understandable. After all, what’s to love about breakfast? The first meal of the day tends not to be celebratory or communal; unless we’re talking about brunch, breakfast’s fashionably late cousin, the morning meal is usually a solitary, functional affair. “Breakfast is the proper meal, the one that’s usually prepared by oneself and eaten alone,” David Heber, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, told me. “It’s not as much fun as going out with friends for lunch or dinner. It’s a chore. Breakfast is a meal people are ready to dump.”
The multifarious reasons people cite for dumping breakfast shed some light on the psychology of the meal. Some simply don’t like to eat in the morning; a handful of friends, none of them pregnant, tell me that even the smell of food before eleven makes them nauseated. Chronic dieters pass on breakfast with an eye toward shaving a few hundred calories off their day. Others can’t seem to squeeze in a meal amid the chaos of their morning: the dog to walk, the children to dress, the in-box fires to extinguish, the enervating commute. Still others, and I count myself among this crowd, sometimes abstain because the received wisdom about breakfast seems possibly spurious—one of those persistent nutrition myths, like the notion that you need eight to ten glasses of water per day or that celery has negative calories: If breakfast is supposed to curb your appetite, then why, shortly after partaking, am I ravenous, unable to focus on anything but foraging for more food, hungrier than when I don’t eat anything?
I am not the only breakfast skeptic out there (though this is, to be sure, a decidedly less populous camp). “I think it’s a nonissue for adults,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University and a breakfast skipper herself. “I think people should eat when they’re hungry. Some people are really hungry in the morning and some are not.” In her book What to Eat, she writes, “I am well aware that everyone says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but I am not convinced. What you eat—and how much—matters more to your health than when you eat.”
But since so many researchers argue that breakfast does matter, I began to investigate. How, exactly, are we harming ourselves by failing to eat breakfast? The simplified answer is that it depends on how young you are. Even Nestle concedes that there is strong evidence that children who skip breakfast do not fare as well academically or physically as those who eat it. A study conducted by researchers at Tufts University found that children who consumed a breakfast of Quaker instant oatmeal displayed better spatial memory and an increased ability to stay on task (what the study called “vigilance attention”) when performing a battery of cognitive tests than children who ate Cap’n Crunch, and, perhaps surprisingly, those who ate the sweetened cereal performed better than those who ate nothing. Another study, this one by researchers at the University of Reading, found that adolescents fed a sugary drink in the morning will subsequently display all the mental agility of a 70-year-old. It’s not much of a leap to assume that an adult who skips breakfast will have the same difficulty concentrating at work as a kid sitting in a classroom—hunger is distracting whatever your age—but distracted office workers have not been a major concern for breakfast researchers.