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Is breakfast really the most important meal?

Eating breakfast can keep you from overdoing it later in the day — assuming you eat a protein- and fruit-based breakfast, rather than just muffins and rolls.
Eating breakfast can keep you from overdoing it later in the day — assuming you eat a protein- and fruit-based breakfast, rather than just muffins and rolls.
Jacob Wackerhausen/iStock/Thinkstock

If you're not a regular breakfast-eater, you've probably heard that you should become one. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!" is the desperate cry of parents everywhere, sprinting out the door after school-bound teenagers, Pop-Tarts in hand. Family doctors and dietitians agree. Eating breakfast, it's said, gives you the energy you need to start your morning. Skipping it leads to overeating and bad food choices later in the day, which can mean weight gain and an overall decline in health. Without breakfast, the thinking goes, you're lethargic and increasingly hungry in the morning — and by lunch you're ready to chow down on a Big Mac and a supersize Coke.

Is breakfast really so important? Plenty of people skip breakfast every day — some just aren't hungry first thing in the morning, some would rather catch up on sleep than spend time making breakfast, and some are trying to save the calories. A few studies have backed the breakfast-skippers, including one in which a group of college students saved about 400 calories a day by omitting breakfast, even if they tended to consume a bit more at lunch [source: Levitsky]. Other researchers have tried to find out whether skipping breakfast leads people to consume more calories later, with inconclusive results. And other studies found that breakfast does have benefits, including decreased risk of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease [sources: Mekary, Cahill]. An overall review of these studies, not surprisingly, concluded that there is still much research to be done [source: McCrory].

The studies have had a wide variety of sizes and methods, which could be one reason for the different results. Another factor could be that "breakfast" means different things to different people. Some of us eat as soon as we wake up, and some of us might eat for the first time midmorning but consider it a snack. Does it matter when we eat or what we call it? The authors of the diabetes study found that it makes no difference: "Snacking" in the morning has the same benefits as eating breakfast [source: Mekary].

There are, however, two issues on which there is universal agreement. The jury might be out on the importance of breakfast for adults, but it is essential for kids. And all breakfasts are not created equal. A bowl of cereal and a doughnut with a side of juice will not give you the benefits of a protein- and fiber-packed meal. Simple carbohydrates paired with sugar will give you a short rush of energy but won't do much else for you. Protein gives longer-term energy, is essential for keeping bones and muscles healthy, and helps boosts immunity. Fiber lowers your cholesterol, regulates blood-sugar levels, helps you feel full, and "keeps things moving" (if you catch our drift). So if you are a dedicated breakfast-eater, say goodbye to the Froot Loops and OJ and opt for eggs, whole-grain toast, oatmeal, fruit or a smoothie.