Assessing the Benefits of Breakfast

The Most Important Meal

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD
From the WebMD Archives

Are you too busy for breakfast? You're not alone. In the rush to get the kids to school or ourselves to work, plenty of us skip breakfast. Or we grab a cup of coffee and a pastry, and call that a meal.

Unfortunately, we may be giving up a lot more than just breakfast, several studies suggest. In findings published in the April 1999 Journal of the American College of Nutrition, researchers looked at what 1,108 French volunteers served up for their morning repast. People who ate a hearty breakfast containing more than one-quarter of their daily calories -- usually in the form of a ready-to-eat breakfast cereal -- consumed less fat and more carbohydrates during the day than people who skimped on food in the morning. Breakfast eaters had a higher intake of essential vitamins and minerals. Plus they generally had lower serum cholesterol levels, which are associated with reduced danger of heart disease.

Better physical health isn't the only payoff. A study of 262 volunteers reported in the November 1999 issue of the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition found that people who consumed breakfast cereal every day reported feeling better both physically and mentally than those who rarely poured a bowl of flakes.

Sit down to a healthy breakfast and -- who knows? -- you might even add years to your life. Researchers from the Georgia Centenarian Study recently reported that people who reach the ripe old age of 100 tend to consume breakfast more regularly than those who skip the first meal of the day.

What makes breakfast so important? Nutritionists say there are at least four good reasons why a healthy diet should begin with a solid breakfast:

  • High fives: By eating a nutritious breakfast -- one that includes at least one serving of fruit -- you better your chances of reaching the recommended five servings of fruits and vegetables a day, surveys show. "People who skip breakfast generally fall short on the recommended servings, especially of fruit," says Gloria Stables, who directs the National Cancer Institute's "five-a-day" program. "If you don't get started with your first meal of the day, it's awfully hard for most people to catch up later." Hitting the high-five mark is important. Dozens of studies have shown that people who eat plenty of fruit (and vegetables) generally have a lower risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. What's more, orange juice, which is practically synonymous with a healthy breakfast, may have special health-giving powers, and not only because it's loaded with vitamin C. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in November 2000, researchers found that a glass of O.J. every day boosts "good" HDL cholesterol, which helps keep arteries from getting clogged. The FDA gave juice makers a green light to label orange juice as a good source of potassium, a nutrient that has been shown to lower the risk of high blood pressure and stroke.
  • A bowl of fortification: Start your day with a bowl of breakfast cereal, and you're more likely to get all the nutrients you need. That's because most cereals these days are fortified with an array of important vitamins and minerals, including folic acid, which helps prevent birth defects and has been linked to lower risk of heart disease and colon cancer.
  • A head start on fiber: The best breakfast cereals are rich in fiber, something most of us don't get enough of. Experts say we need 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day to be our healthiest. The average American consumes only 13 grams, a shortfall that may put us at unnecessary risk of heart disease. In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in September 1999, Harvard University scientists found that women who ate 23 grams of fiber a day -- mostly from cereal -- were 23% less likely to have heart attacks than those who consumed only 11 grams. In men, a high-fiber diet slashed the chances of a heart attack by 36%. Even people who follow a low-fat, high-cholesterol diet stand to benefit from adding more fiber. In 1993, researchers at the University of Toronto studied 43 healthy men and women with elevated cholesterol levels who had been following the National Cholesterol Education Program's "Step 2" diet. When the volunteers switched to a similar low-fat diet but one that was very high in soluble fiber -- between 50 and 60 grams a day -- their total and LDL cholesterol levels fell by an additional 4.9% and 4.8%.
  • Filling up instead of out: Finally, if you're trying to drop a few pounds, sitting down to a healthy, high-fiber breakfast could be the key to success. In a study published in the Oct. 27, 1999, issue of TheJournal of the American Medical Association, researchers followed 2,909 men and women over the course of 10 years and found that people who ate a high-fiber diet were less likely than those who fell short on fiber to gain weight. Among African Americans, the average weight of people in the low-fiber group was 185.6 pounds, compared to 177.6 pounds among those who consumed the most fiber -- a difference of 5%. Among whites, those on a low-fiber diet averaged 174.8 pounds, compared to only 166.7 among fiber eaters. One reason may be that high-fiber foods fill you up on fewer calories. Fiber also slows the digestive process, which in turn wards off hunger pangs later. That's especially important in the morning. In a recent study, volunteers were asked to begin their day with either a bowl of cornflakes (which are relatively low in fiber) or a bowl of oatmeal (which is loaded with it). Three hours later, both groups were invited to help themselves to a nutritional shake. Those who helped themselves to oatmeal for breakfast consumed 40% less.

If you can't find time for breakfast, consider setting your alarm clock 15 minutes earlier. Then follow two simple rules. First, make sure breakfast includes at least one, preferably two, servings of fruit. Next, help yourself to high-fiber foods like toasted whole grain bread, high-fiber breakfast cereal, or oatmeal. That's all you need to be well on your way to a daily helping of good health.

Peter Jaret is a freelance writer in Petaluma, Calif., who has written for Health, Hippocrates, and many other national publications.