Breakfast is a ritual, taken for granted with its associated health benefits religiously drummed into us since childhood. It may as well be the 11th Commandment: “Thou shalt eat breakfast daily and never skip it.”
The icon of breakfast is cereal, which as we know all too well, can be the antithesis of a healthy start to the day with some laden with disturbing amounts of sugar. (Chef and author Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall tackles the issue in the documentary Hugh’s Fat Fight).
WATCH: Hugh’s Fat Fight Monday nights on SBS at 8:30pm and anytime at SBS On Demand
Cereal is such a staple that we may fail to ever question its worth. It was responsible for the PR spin that placed breakfast as the pinnacle of our nutritional day. But is the concept all one big con?
How breakfast became king
There’s a reason why “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” sounds like a slogan. That’s because it is.
Rewind to 1944, to the dawn of one of the most successful marketing campaigns arguably in history. Cereal manufacturer General Foods (what we now know as Kraft Foods) called it “Eat a Good Breakfast - Do a Better Job,” and radio ads ran with the line: “Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” And so it was.
And have you ever wondered why bacon is such a breakfast staple? We can thank “the father of public relations,” Edward Bernays for that. As he explains in archival footage, he approached, on behalf of the bacon manufacturer Beech-Nut Packing Company, a physician who endorsed the idea that a heavy, protein-rich breakfast of bacon and eggs was a healthier option than a light one. The reasoning? “Because the body loses energy during the night and needs it during the day.”
Bernays asked the doctor to write to 5,000 physicians to see if they agreed – most conveniently did. The results of the petition were published in newspapers across America which “had headlines saying ‘4,500 physicians urge heavy breakfasts in order to improve the health of the American people’,” Bernays recalled. “Many of them stated that bacon and eggs should be embodied with the breakfast, and as a result, the sale of bacon went up.”
The idea that breakfast is (quite literally) “good” for you owes much to the invention of Corn Flakes in the late 19th Century by Kellogg’s founders, Doctor John Harvey Kellogg and his younger brother Will Keith Kellogg. The former, a devout Seventh-day Adventist and vegetarian believed that the consumption of meat, a staple of American diets, and rich foods “irritate [the] nerves and … react upon the sexual organs,” encouraging carnal desires and masturbation. Bizarrely, he believed light and bland foods like Corn Flakes were the cure. Imagine an advertising campaign for that!
The great irony is that the commercially savvy younger Kellogg convinced his brother sugar was a necessary evil to add to the cereals so they didn’t taste like “horse-food”.
According to the Australian Breakfast Cereal Manufacturers Forum, Australians rank as the third highest consumers of cereal in the world, each consuming almost eight kilograms yearly. Yet, last year news.com.au reported that sales of cereal were in decline, valuing the Australian industry at $1.2 billion.
What should we believe about breakfast?
In the 1960s, “the first lady of nutrition” Adelle Davis made the iconic statement: “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper.” Though that sentiment will align with some people’s eating habits, today it seems like something of an illogical imbalance.
The Dieticians Association of Australia (DAA) says the health benefits of eating breakfast are that you’re less likely to be overweight or obese because it fills you up, meaning you’ll be less likely to eat unhealthy foods later in the day; it provides energy and essential nutrients; and improves alertness, concentration, mental performance, mood and memory. Nutrition Australia adds that breakfast kick starts metabolism, and stabilises blood sugar levels.
Unfortunately, the report the DAA cites along with the benefits it lists is emblematic of how problematic research can be, with some studies sponsored by cereal companies - in this case, Kellogg’s.
But while nutritionist Rosemary Stanton highlights the problem, she says there’s plenty of reliable evidence to back up the nutritional benefits of a healthy breakfast over skipping it. Stanton cites an Australian study that began in 1985, into the breakfast habits of nine to 15-year-olds that revisited them in 2004-2006. It found that those who skipped breakfast (defined as not eating between 6-9am) in childhood and adulthood had developed “detrimental” risk factors for cardiometabolic health: a larger waist circumference, higher fasting insulin, and higher total and LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels than those who ate breakfast.
Yet there are so many conflicting studies out there about the health effects of breakfast it’s hard to know what to believe (not unlike the yo-yoing research on the breakfast staple eggs).
Take the substantial bank of research that has found that skipping or delaying breakfast could actually help with weight loss and metabolism (the exact opposite of what pro-breakfast studies say), part of the intermittent fasting trend.
A 10-week study by the University of Surrey featured on Trust Me I’m A Doctor took 16 subjects and divided them into two groups: one group who had breakfast 90 minutes later than usual and dinner 90 minutes earlier, and one control group that ate as they normally would. The fasting effect caused the first group, on average, to lose more body fat, and have a greater reduction in blood sugar levels and cholesterol compared to the control group.
Dr Michael Mosley, host of Trust Me I'm a Doctor and creator of the 5:2 diet, told The Sydney Morning Herald that not everyone needs to have breakfast or is suited to it, citing studies where people have put on weight when forced to eat it.
Even the term “skipping breakfast” is loaded with judgment, with the negative connotation that people aren’t looking after themselves if they miss the meal. Stanton believes that you can make up for skipping breakfast later in the day with a lunch and dinner high in nutrients. That said, the nutritionist advocates eating breakfast regularly but says it’s more about what you eat first in your day rather than at a rigid time.
“It’s likely that eating breakfast – or skipping it – may simply reflect a personal preference for timing food intake,” she writes for The Conversation. “Not everyone enjoys eating first thing in the morning. But your first choice of foods may contribute to an overall healthy diet.”
Hugh’s Fat Fight airs Monday nights on SBS at 8:30pm and anytime at SBS On Demand.