A typical day usually consists of consuming 3 meals – breakfast, lunch, and dinner. That may not always be the case, depending on your eating patterns. With that said, is one meal more essential than others in terms of health benefits? Let’s break it down to see if there’s a meal you won’t want to miss.
Is Breakfast The Most Important Meal of the Day?
You’ve likely heard the phrase that breakfast is “the most important meal of the day.” With a lofty title like that, a lot of research has been done to see if it lives up to those expectations.
A 2018 study published in Nutrients researched how skipping breakfast could affect disease risk, including obesity, diabetes, and coronary heart disease. The study observed whether omitting breakfast could lower dietary qualities and create unhealthy habits, such as smoking and lack of physical activity.
Researchers assessed approximately 1,500 men and women and collected their dietary data over 4 days. The study defined regular breakfast eaters as those who had breakfast 3 or 4 times over the 4 days. Irregular breakfast eaters consumed breakfast only 1 or 2 times.
Results found that younger adults between the ages of 18 to 35 years old were more likely to skip breakfast, while the older population (50+ years old) were more likely to eat breakfast regularly. It was also noted that smokers were more likely to skip breakfast and spent more time watching television than regular breakfast eaters.
The study not only examined how often breakfast was consumed but also the quality of each meal. To assess the overall nutritional quality of the food, the study used the Nutrient-rich food index. This index encouraged intake of 9 nutrients, including protein, dietary fiber, vitamins A, C, and E, calcium, iron, potassium, and magnesium. Additionally, it recommended limiting saturated fat, total sugar, and sodium.
This study concluded that breakfast provided approximately 20% of total daily energy intake, about 24% of dietary fiber, 32% of iron, 30% of calcium, 32% of folate, and 37% of B2 (riboflavin) intakes. For individuals skipping breakfast, there were significantly lower intakes of dietary fiber, iron, calcium, folate, B2, and vitamin D. They also had increased intake of sodium and fat at breakfast.
Eating breakfast also sets the tone for what the rest of the day would look like for participants in terms of food choices. This study found that people adhered to healthier diets when they ate breakfast, which included a higher intake of dairy, breakfast cereal, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables, and fish.
Overall, irregular breakfast eaters were deemed to follow more of a “Western” style of eating that includes a higher intake of grains, pasta, savory foods, beverages, and meat dishes. This type of eating pattern has been linked to obesity, unhealthy lipid profiles, and metabolic syndromes.
Breakfast and Mental Health
Beyond your physical health, breakfast can also impact your mood and mental health. According to a 2018 study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, a good quality breakfast has been shown to reduce stress and depression in adolescents.
Over 500 adolescents ranging from 12 to 17 years old participated in the study. A questionnaire was administered to find whether the participants had eaten breakfast as well as its quality.
Breakfast quality was based on the following responses:
- “Have cereal or other grain-based products (bread, toast, etc.)”
- “Have some type of dairy product for breakfast”
- “Have commercially baked goods (e.g. biscuits or pastries) for breakfast”
If a participant stated in their questionnaire that they consumed commercially baked goods and did not eat bread/toast/cereal or dairy products for breakfast, this was considered very poor quality. A poor quality breakfast was when participants ate bread/toast/cereal or dairy products and commercially baked goods. Avoiding commercially baked goods altogether and eating bread/cereal/toast and/or dairy products was deemed a good quality breakfast.
Choosing grain-based foods along with dairy products was considered “good quality” because these foods provide a wide range of nutrients. Cereals can provide protein, carbohydrates, and micronutrients, while dairy products are good sources of calcium.
Results found that participants who ate good quality breakfasts had lower mental distress, fewer depressive symptoms, a more positive mood, and improved quality of life.
Research has shown there are several ways these breakfast foods can help boost mood and relieve stress. One is that your brain benefits from consuming carbohydrates after a night of fasting due to the reduced levels of cortisol produced. Cortisol is a hormone that helps your body respond to stress; therefore, lower cortisol levels reduce that stress signal.
Another way is when carbohydrates are digested and broken down into glucose—a process essential to the formation of tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, which controls depressive symptoms, irritable mood, and cognitive functioning.
Contrary to the stance in Nutrients, this study found that skipping breakfast altogether resulted in better health and lower stress than choosing a very poor quality breakfast.
Is Lunch The Most Important Meal of the Day?
The mid-day meal after breakfast, lunch, can also improve the quality of food choices for individuals who incorporate this meal into their day.
A recent study published in Circulation found that diet quality is lower among adolescents who skip lunch. Data was collected from over 700 adolescents who completed a 24-hour diet recall. That data was then converted into Healthy Eating Index (HEI) scores, a tool used by the USDA to assess how diet quality compares to the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
It was found that over 15% of the students surveyed skipped lunch and had a mean HEI score of 41.7 compared to the score of 46.6 for students who did eat lunch. The students who tended to skip lunch had a significantly lower intake of vegetables, fruits, dairy, and protein overall. Not only that, but they were more apt to choose food containing empty calories, including solid fats, alcohol, and added sugars.
It’s almost guaranteed that you’ve experienced it—that moment when you have a nice, filling lunch, then all of a sudden feel like taking a nap. This is a well-established phenomenon that creates a sleepy feeling about one hour after eating lunch. The so-called post-lunch dip decreases alertness, memory, vigilance, and even your mood.
Thankfully, researchers wanted to see how this phenomenon could be addressed. A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition oversaw over 80 participants over 12 weeks to find whether consuming almonds had an impact on this post-lunch dip. The results concluded that an almond-enriched high fat lunch reduced memory decline by almost 58% compared to a high-carbohydrate lunch.
Is Dinner The Most Important Meal of the Day?
There’s nothing quite like a nice sit-down dinner with family. Not only does it let you spend quality time with each other, but it’s been found to benefit children’s health and nutrition.
A 2014 study published in Nutrition Research and Practice researched the importance family meals have on children’s health and nutrition. Researchers used data from about 3,500 third graders with the help of parents in completing a questionnaire. The questionnaire consisted of general characteristics, family meals, eating habits, eating behaviors, and environmental influence on children’s eating.
The results of this study found that children who had more frequent family dinners had better eating habits, such as eating regular meals. They were also well behaved during meals and talked with family members, ate breakfast, and would have breakfast with family members more often.
Furthermore, picky eating was less common in children who had regular family dinners. Although the foods deemed “most disliked” by the participants included vegetables, beans, and seaweeds, the children who had more family dinners were more likely to consume grains, protein, dairy, vegetables, seaweeds, and fruits. The researchers suggested nutrition education may help to change the negative mindset towards vegetables and provide the opportunity to have them more often for meals and snacks.
Does Timing Make a Difference?
Eating is an essential part of our survival as humans, and the time that we choose to eat can affect digestion, absorption, and metabolism. Several studies have been reviewed to find how eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner at specific times can impact metabolism, glucose tolerance, and obesity-related factors.
When it came to breakfast, skipping it completely was associated with obesity. Eating a late lunch past 3 p.m. also prevented weight loss. Not only that, but eating a later lunch can affect gut microbiota composition and diversity. In terms of dinner, eating late, or approximately 2 hours before bedtime, decreased glucose tolerance.
Which Meal is the Winner?
Since specific health benefits can come from each meal, it’s impossible to deem which is the most important.
To sum it up, skipping breakfast could put you at risk for obesity, diabetes, or coronary heart disease. It also significantly lowered intakes of dietary fiber, iron, calcium, folate, B2, and vitamin D. On the other hand, if you do eat breakfast, you’re more likely to have a healthier diet. Good quality breakfasts can also be beneficial for mental health and mood.
When it comes to lunch, individuals who tend to skip this meal may wind up having a significantly lower intake of vegetables, fruits, dairy, and protein. You can also avoid that post-lunch dip by having a handful of almonds with your lunch to keep your brain sharp!
Last but not least, having family dinners can create healthy eating habits in children including, consuming regular meals and being less picky.
Rather than focusing on what meal to prioritize, your attention should turn to the types of foods you choose to eat throughout the day. Opt for high-quality foods, including protein, fruits, vegetables, dairy, nuts, and grains, which can benefit health and lower the risk of metabolic diseases.
Lauren Armstrong is a Registered Dietitian with several years of experience counseling and educating individuals seeking chronic disease prevention and a healthier lifestyle. She is a graduate of Western Michigan University and completed her dietetic internship at Michigan State University.