Always eating breakfast has long been promoted as a healthy habit. Social media abounds with #healthybreakfast options; everything from smoothies to sweet potato “toast”. Healthy people eat a good breakfast is the message, loud and clear.
But can we be sure about this? And what happens when you throw exercise into the mix? Should we eat before or after a workout? Recent research suggests the answers are not so clear.
Nutrition experts have generally always recommended breakfast – it’s even in some official healthy eating guidelines around the world. Previous research had suggested healthier people tended to eat it – breakfast eaters have been found to be healthier overall and to weigh less. The thinking was that people who skip breakfast end up over-compensating later in the day and eating more, or reaching for unhealthy foods to fill the gap.
However, new studies have thrown up some discussion on breakfast’s image as “the most important meal of the day”. A review published in the British Medical Journal – looking in particular at weight control – found people who ate breakfast ate more calories overall and were slightly heavier than those who didn’t eat breakfast – suggesting, researchers said, that breakfast might not be a good strategy for weight loss. This mirrors other research which has found energy intake tends to be a bit higher overall on days when breakfast is consumed.
Surprisingly, though, there hasn’t been very much research specifically on breakfast. Even the authors of the most recent review said their results should be interpreted with caution.
There has been some limited research into exercise and breakfast. A 2013 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition looked at whether exercising on an empty stomach (known as “fasted training”) was beneficial or not. It found men who worked out without breakfast ended up not compensating for the missed energy; what’s more, they didn't experience increased appetite, hunger or food consumption later in the day. The fasted trainers also burned more fat than those who ate breakfast before working out.
On the other hand, a review of all the research in this area in 2017 found “minimal changes in body mass and composition” following aerobic exercise in both fasted and fed states. In other words, it doesn’t make much difference whether you eat breakfast or not before a workout. The review concluded that “performing exercise in a fasted state did not influence weight loss or changes in lean and fat mass”. Basically, the jury is still out.
There is interesting emerging evidence about the possible benefits of not skipping breakfast altogether, but delaying it. In other words, leaving a longer gap between dinner and breakfast. The “16-8” style diets, where eating is limited to an eight-hour window during the day, can be an effective weight loss strategy for some people (although it’s worth noting the research shows it’s no better or worse than many other weight-loss diets). It appears there may also be a benefit for our gut bacteria in doing this, as fasting gives our bugs a chance to rest and recover. Even a 12-hour break between meals can have this benefit.
This all points to breakfast being more of an individual choice, rather than a strict health rule.
If you’re an exerciser and you want to avoid distracting hunger pangs and feel like you have the energy to work out, breakfast is probably a good idea – but experts recommend trying to have it an hour before you exercise for maximum benefit. If you’re exercising early in the morning and that’s unrealistic, you could have something small – some yoghurt and fruit, say – before you work out, and then a proper breakfast afterwards to refuel and help your muscles recover and rebuild.
One of the best arguments in favor of eating breakfast, whether we’re exercising or not, is that it’s a good opportunity to get some great nutrition into us. If we don’t eat breakfast, we have one less meal in which to get the nutrition we need for our day. Breakfast is a meal that typically lets us get in some fiber, in the form of whole grains from bread and cereal or fruit or vegetables, and some protein, maybe in the form of eggs, milk or yoghurt. We’re also getting all the other good things that come inside those foods. If we don’t have breakfast, then we have to really power-pack our other meals and snacks to make sure we get the best and healthiest stuff into the day.
In a great breakfast you’ll want to get in some protein and carbohydrate – ideally some high fiber carbs. If you’re a cereal person, go for the “wholest” of whole-grain versions – mueslis and granolas with whole-grain oats, for example, and those full of seeds and nuts, rather than the super-processed cereals. Look for high fiber and low sugar. Add some milk and yoghurt for protein and get a serving of fruit in, and you’ll be off to a good start. Or go for wholegrain toast, eggs or tofu and vegetables.
Whenever you break your fast, make it count by including the best possible fuel.
Niki Bezzant is a New Zealand-based food writer, editor and commentator. She is the founding editor (now editor-at-large) of Healthy Food Guide magazine, and is currently president of Food Writers New Zealand and a proud ambassador for the Garden to Table program which helps children learn how to grow, cook and share food. She is a member of the Council of Directors for the True Health Initiative, a global coalition of health professionals dedicated to sharing a science-based message of what we know for sure about lifestyle and health.
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