Skipping breakfast has been a hot topic for years, with supporters claiming it improves metabolic health and extends lifespan. But new research shows that not eating a morning meal can compromise the immune system. So, who should we believe?
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper, so the saying goes. But in recent years, the trend for intermittent fasting has seen many of us ditch our morning meal in favour of later refuelling. Given that some of us don’t feel that hungry on waking anyway, breakfast feels like the easiest meal to delay in order to benefit from a fasted window. Who cares if we don’t eat until 11am – it’s fine, right?
While the benefits of intermittent fasting are appealing (it’s claimed to help our bodies repair and boost longevity, among other benefits) and it certainly has its proponents in mainstream media, new research could be set to challenge this thinking. Here we take a look at the reasons you absolutely should be reaching for something healthy and nutritious in the mornings.
Why is breakfast a great start to the day?
Aside from very simple fact that our bodies need to refuel after sleeping (it’s called breakfast for a reason), breakfast eaters are widely thought to have healthier lifestyles generally, with lower risks of chronic diseases and a greater intake of nutrients throughout the day.
Clinical nutritionist Hannah Hope is firmly Team Breakfast, saying: “A protein-rich breakfast is a really important start to your day. A healthy breakfast will raise your energy levels, give you the energy you need if you wish to exercise, and lead to better choices around food for the rest of the day, as well as improving concentration and attention span.”
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What are the downsides of skipping breakfast?
It can compromise our immune system
According to a new study by the Icahn school of medicine at Mount Sinai hospital, skipping breakfast could leave us less able to fight infections and increase our risk of heart disease.Researchers looked at mice models, feeding one group a large breakfast, and the other group nothing. They discovered that being in a fasted state triggers a response in the brain that negatively affects immune cells – the mice that weren’t fed breakfast lost 90% of their white blood cells over a period of four hours.
In addition, once food was reintroduced, the fasted mice experienced a surge of immune cells back into their bloodstreams, triggering inflammation and leaving them less resistant to fighting infection. While it goes without saying that this would need to be tested on humans for conclusive proof, it makes for interesting reading – food for thought, if you like.
Skipping breakfast might exacerbate existing stress
The same mouse study concluded that going without breakfast elicited a stress response in the brains of the hungry mice – and many of us also struggle with feeling ‘hangry’ if we don’t eat regularly. Additionally, a 2018 study of teenagers showed that those who ate a good breakfast experienced lower levels of stress and depression than those who ate a poor-quality meal in the morning.
“Intermittent fasting using methods such as skipping breakfast can increase levels of the stress hormone, cortisol,” agrees health coach Sarah Elisabeth. “If you’re already stressed, which the majority of us are due to the demands of day-to-day life, skipping breakfast is only going to perpetuate the problem.”
Elisabeth instead recommends a consistent eating routine alongside good nutrition, while Hope advocates a protein-rich breakfast to kickstart your day and regulate cortisol levels.
“Foods with protein, such as eggs, fibre-filled oats or a smoothie packed with vegetables and seeds, will set you up well for the day ahead,” she advises. “Eating a decent breakfast will boost your energy levels and leave the body better able to fight stress.”
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It may have a negative impact on blood sugar levels
If you’re someone who experiences energy highs and lows throughout the day (3pm slump, anyone?) not eating breakfast could just make things worse.
“Skipping breakfast leaves you devoid of satisfaction, meaning you’ll likely reach for foods which will raise your blood sugar levels fast,” explains Elisabeth. “Fasting can make sugar cravings go through the roof, and your need for coffee to keep you going increases too.”
Relying on sugar and caffeine to plug the gap until lunchtime does nobody any favours, and it’s easy to see how a nutritious breakfast might be a much better option, especially if you’re prone to swings in energy levels.
It can affect our sleep
If you want a better night’s sleep, chow down on some delicious grub in the morning. While there are many factors that influence our ability to sleep, Anna McKay, a sleep expert and founder of Zeez Sleep, believes skipping breakfast is a bad idea.
“There is a really good reason to stop skipping breakfast if we want to sleep well,” she explains. “Good sleep, arguably, is the foundation of good health. Without it, we can’t benefit from good food or exercise. To sleep well, we need enough melatonin (sometimes called our sleep hormone), made from serotonin created in the brain. A morning meal rich in the amino acid tryptophan (found in eggs, chicken, fish and nuts) ensures our bodies can produce enough serotonin and therefore melatonin – essential for healthy sleep.”
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