Breakfast is a dangerous meal. This might sound provocative, so let me explain. It’s dangerous because it’s eaten soon after we wake and we wake because the hormone cortisol peaks first thing in the morning. Cortisol wakes us up but, for reasons that are obscure, it also causes the body to be resistant to insulin, and in consequence our blood insulin levels rise higher after breakfast than after lunch or dinner.
Such rises will aggravate the condition of insulin resistance, which is the condition that will kill most of the people reading this article.
Anyone who is overweight, hypertensive, unfit or has abnormal levels of cholesterol or triglycerides (well over two thirds of people over the age of 45) will be insulin resistant and is likely to die from the heart attacks and strokes and cancers associated with that condition. For those people to aggravate their condition by eating breakfast is, therefore, folly.
Breakfast, moreover, makes people fat. Contrary to myth, people who eat breakfast do not eat markedly less at lunch, so the calories they eat at breakfast will only add to their total calorie intake. Moreover, many people report that eating breakfast prompts them to snack both mid-morning and mid-afternoon.
So, the interesting question isn’t: is breakfast a dangerous meal? Of course it is. The interesting question is: why have scientists been claiming for a century it’s the most important meal of the day, one we should eat like a king?
Well, one depressing reason is that almost all the relevant research papers are funded by the cereal, bacon or egg companies. Unfortunately those company-funded scientists will select their data and their conclusions artfully.
A more noble explanation lies in free-breakfast programmes. In many countries, children from poor families can receive free breakfasts at school, and scientists can feel an obligation to support those programmes. It is a myth that children do better at school if they eat breakfast but nonetheless scientists fear that any discrediting of breakfast might endanger outreach to the poor.
Which raises an important point: if children are not hungry in the morning, we shouldn’t force them to eat breakfast. They’re not geese on a pâté de fois gras production line, and there’s a reason why so many are not hungry — their bodies are warning them of the dangers of their morning cortisol spikes.
But scientists also have less noble reasons for distorting their data. Challenging established paradigms is hard work, and it can lead funding agencies to withdraw support and journals to not accept papers. Since scientists are judged on their successes with grants and papers, they are thus disincentivised from prioritising truth. It’s just too easy to reinforce the current paradigm.
The simple truth, as Sir Michael Marmot of University College London showed in his 2004 book The Status Syndrome, is that — because they lead less stressful lives — the middle classes outlive the working classes by about seven years. But because the middle classes tend to do as they are told, while the working classes can be bloody-minded, the middle classes tend dutifully to eat their breakfasts while the working classes often skip them.
It is thus only too easy for an ambitious scientist to collect data showing that heart attacks, strokes and cancer correlate with the skipping of breakfast, and to then imply a false cause and effect.
Food research is going through a process of revisionism. Among the false prescriptions that are now being overthrown are the importance of breakfast and the importance of eating frequently. Both prescriptions break a person’s fast, yet we know that fasting is in fact the most healthful state of all, so a regime of only two meals a day (early lunch and early supper) which leaves the body with a night and a morning to recuperate between meals is the best possible one.
What of people who say they cannot function without breakfast? Well, they should be encouraged to eat carbohydrate-free in the mornings. So eggs or Greek yoghurt or strawberries and cream (there is surprisingly little sugar in many berries) or cheese eaten on chicory or lettuce will do little harm.
But most people eat breakfast because they believe they should. Actually, they shouldn’t.
Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal by Terence Kealey is out now, published by 4th Estate.