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Is Breakfast Really Your Most Important Meal?

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Q. What if you don’t eat anything until after you’ve been up for a couple of hours or more? Does that count as breakfast?

A. Does eating later in the morning count as breakfast or a snack, especially if it’s something small and not a calorie-laden meal? In many studies, researchers typically ask only whether participants ate breakfast, not what they ate or when they ate it.

“There’s no real standard definition of breakfast,” says Megan McCrory, PhD. She's an associate professor of nutrition at the Georgia State University Byrdine F. Lewis School of Nursing and Health Professions.  Some people might call that container of yogurt scarfed down at their office a morning snack, while others might call it breakfast, McCrory says, muddying the research findings. More study is needed, she said in an article published in July in Physiology & Behavior.

Mekary says she wondered whether people who said they skipped breakfast actually ate the same amount of that meal but called it snacking. She and her colleagues had asked participants in the Nurses Health Study whether they snacked before lunch as well as whether they ate breakfast. In one analysis of their data, Mekary lumped together all of the before-lunch snackers who said they didn’t eat breakfast and compared them to the women who said they did. Both groups had a similarly lower risk of type 2 diabetes compared to women who said they ate nothing before lunch, in part because the morning eaters tended to weigh less. In other words, whether you call it breakfast or a snack and eat it first thing or later in the morning, the potential benefits appear to be similar, Mekary says.

Q. What is the breakfast of champions?

A. Whether grabbing a doughnut is better than no breakfast at all remains to be seen, Leidy says. “Some of our studies suggest that it is better to eat something for breakfast as opposed to skipping,” she says. “On the other hand, we also show that eating a high sugar/high carbohydrate breakfast is detrimental in terms of appetite control and snacking.”

A breakfast high in protein -- such as Greek yogurt with blueberries, granola, and nuts, or a breakfast burrito with eggs, lean meat or soy, and vegetables -- is a better choice, Leidy says.

Q. Can eating breakfast make me smarter?

A. It’s probably too late for you, but it might work for your kids.

An observational study of Chinese kindergartners published in 2013 found that those who regularly ate breakfast had higher IQ scores than their peers who didn’t. The difference remained even after accounting for other factors that can influence IQ, such as parents’ education and occupations.

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