We’ve been hearing it since grade school: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It turns out some recent studies are taking that bit of folk wisdom to task. According to British nutritionist James Betts, PhD, and a study conducted at Cornell University, people who skip breakfast tend to consume fewer calories throughout the day, a habit which could (perhaps obviously) contribute to weight loss over time.
But whether or not a person consumes breakfast isn’t the only factor at play. A balanced diet (and overall health) hinges not only on when you eat but what you eat. With busy schedules, competing data, and personal preferences to contend with, it can be important to know when and where to concentrate your efforts.
Read on to learn what's the most important meal of the day, according to experts.
While eating a balanced breakfast has a number of health benefits, current research suggests that breakfast is not necessarily the most important meal of the day. As Aaron Carroll of The New York Times points out, “The evidence for the importance of breakfast is something of a mess. If you’re hungry, eat it. But don’t feel bad if you’d rather skip it, and don’t listen to those who lecture you. Breakfast has no mystical powers.”
The primary issue with studies concerning the importance of breakfast (or any other meal) is that they’re largely observational. This means that rather than being based on strictly controlled and randomized scientific trials, studies are more likely to assume a causal relationship where two things may only be simultaneously true. While there are a handful of scientific studies on the health benefits of breakfast, the most compelling research supports a take-it-or-leave-it approach to the meal.
So what's the most important meal of the day, then? Ultimately, the most important meal of the day is whichever meal offers the highest nutritional value. While this may sound like a cop-out, it’s virtually the only point on which all nutritional experts seem to agree. In fact, the most pressing concern when it comes to breakfast isn’t whether or not you have it, but what you’re having.
At least in the U.S., a large number of our most beloved breakfast foods are high in carbs and low in protein (think bagels, pastries, and breakfast cereal). By contrast, with a nearly endless array of raw bowls, protein-laden salads, and nutrient-dense veggie dishes on lunch menus, there’s a strong case to be made for lunch as the most important meal of the day.
While the most important meal of the day may be up for debate, a look at the issue in a recent Time article suggests that tapering off your food intake as the day goes on may have some scientific backing. Of course, the popular mid-century directive from nutritionist Adelle Davis to “Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper” is only viable (or valuable) if you’re consuming plenty of nutrition at those larger meals. So while breakfast may not automatically be the most important meal of the day, depending on what you eat, it certainly can be.
Levitsky DA, Pacanowski CR. Effect of skipping breakfast on subsequent energy intake. Physiol Behav. 2013;119:9‐16. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2013.05.006
Betts JA, Richardson JD, Chowdhury EA, Holman GD, Tsintzas K, Thompson D. The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in lean adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014;100(2):539‐547. doi:10.3945/ajcn.114.083402
Megson M, Wing R, Leahey TM. Effects of breakfast eating and eating frequency on body mass index and weight loss outcomes in adults enrolled in an obesity treatment program. J Behav Med. 2017;40(4):595‐601. doi:10.1007/s10865-017-9828-0
U.S. National Library of Medicine, MedlinePlus. Nutrition. Updated April 23, 2020.