If you grew up breakfasting like a king, it might be time to think more like a pauper when it comes to your first meal of the day. Breakfast is back in the headlines, with Professor Tim Spector of King's College London, a gut health and nutrition guru, advising that we all delay our first meal of the day if we want to stay healthy and lose weight.
It turns out that the microbes in our gut have a circadian rhythm like us and need a rest period, which helps them become more efficient at burning food. As most of us eat our evening meal much later than we used to, it is difficult to achieve a 14-hour fasting period.
Studies suggest that skipping breakfast, or at least shifting it to 11am to create an overnight fasting window of at least 14 hours, could help people to lose four to 11 pounds (1.8-4.9kg) of weight over several months. A study published in Cell Metabolism found that participants following this time-restricted eating pattern saw a 3 per cent reduction in their weight and a 4 per cent reduction in abdominal visceral fat after 12 weeks.
While more research is needed to establish whether a 14-hour overnight fasting period is more beneficial than other forms of fasting, or indeed simple calorie restriction when it comes to weight loss, the advantage may lie in its "do-ability". The effect seems to be similar to that achieved from the 5:2 diet, in which people eat very little for two days a week - but simply delaying eating in the morning is something we can easily incorporate into our daily routine.
New research also suggests the foods we traditionally eat for breakfast – cereal and toast – are setting us up for a blood sugar spike, followed by a crash, which can increase appetite. So maybe it is time for us to rethink breakfast altogether.
The most important meal of the day?
We've been told for years that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. From improved concentration to kick-starting our metabolism, die-hard breakfast fans swear by the health benefits the meal brings. But what does the science say?
There's a good body of evidence to suggest that a nourishing breakfast can help with cognitive function and work efficiency. Since the main fuel for the brain is glucose, by having breakfast we boost our blood glucose levels, which has a direct effect on brain function.
Additionally, skipping breakfast is associated with a poorer overall diet. Research from Ohio State University on more than 30,000 adults concluded that breakfast skippers had lower intakes of key vitamins and minerals and a poorer overall diet quality than those who ate breakfast.
However, the same study that found an overnight fast to be beneficial for weight loss also found it improved cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and there was also some reported improvement in sleep quality and energy levels.
Just as your body and brain feel refreshed after a good night's sleep, researchers say fasting can help restore and rejuvenate your organs. If you do habitually skip breakfast, it's important to pay attention to your nutrient intake at other meals to ensure you're getting adequate nutrition.
Can you breakfast your way to weight loss?
As far as weight management is concerned, one argument for eating a good proportion of your calories at breakfast is that it leads to an increase in energy expenditure, also called diet-induced thermogenesis.
A 2020 study by German researchers found that a higher-calorie breakfast increased DIT, which helped increase weight loss. This does assume that overall calorie intake for the rest of the day is not excessive.
Another argument for loading up at breakfast is that skipping it can lead to overeating later in the day. Our normal circadian rhythms send strong hunger signals in the morning and, if we ignore these signals, we can over-compensate for those lost calories later.
But before you tuck into that bacon sandwich, researchers at Monash University in Melbourne have come to a different conclusion. Participants in their study who ate breakfast had a higher total daily energy intake than those assigned to skip it. Overall, they consumed an extra 260 calories a day, which is, incidentally, around half a bacon sandwich.
Rewrite the menu
Nutritionists agree that the quality of what we eat for our first meal of the day really matters, whenever we eat it.
A study of 527 Spanish high school students found that those who ate a nutritious breakfast had better health-related quality of life and lower levels of stress and depression than those who ate a poor-quality breakfast. In fact, the study found that skipping breakfast was preferable to eating a bad one.
Unfortunately, our traditional breakfast foods are not those most likely to get us off to the best start nutritionally. Many are comprised of simple carbohydrates, like toast and jam or shop-bought cereals, which will cause blood sugar levels to rise sharply – rather than provide slow, sustained energy.
Other breakfast options such as bacon and sausages are high in saturated animal fat and offer little in the way of fibre, vitamins, minerals and prebiotics/probiotics for good gut health.
Smoothies and eggs: the recipe for success
Balance your macros (essentially, your protein, carbohydrates and fats). Include complex carbs like wholegrains from oats or wholegrain bread, lean protein from dairy or eggs and healthy fats from avocados, nuts and seeds.
Have some fruit and vegetables - berries and bananas in a smoothie or on porridge; overnight oats with apple; or spinach, tomatoes and spring onions with eggs.
Include some pro and prebiotics for a healthy gut. Probiotics are present in live yoghurt, cheese and fermented foods like kefir. Prebiotics are a kind of fibre that feeds gut bacteria and is found in foods like oats, apples, onions and asparagus.
The bottom line on breakfast
If nothing on earth is going to come between you and your brekkie, the best advice is to choose a healthy, balanced one that will deliver a good hit of nutrition and sustained energy.
If you can happily go without, do – or at least push it back a couple of hours. Who knows, you might just lose a few pounds.