The typical diet recognizes three main meals — breakfast, lunch and dinner — but only breakfast is backed by a PR push dating back to the late-19th century.
“The idea that breakfast is the most important meal of the day can be traced back to marketing campaigns to promote breakfast cereal,” says Cara Harbstreet, MS, RD, of Street Smart Nutrition. Newly invented cereals in the late 1800s were promoted as lighter, healthier alternatives to the typical farmer’s breakfast of eggs and meat, and were positioned as a vital start to the day. The slogan stuck, expanding to include more foods than just cereal, and it’s impacted the way entire generations of people have eaten ever since. But there is some reasoning behind the idea.
“As the name implies, breakfast ‘breaks’ the overnight fasting period,” explains Harbstreet. “Our bodies still use energy while we sleep for growth and repair. After going anywhere between eight and 12 hours without food, our brain and muscles need energy, or glucose, to start the day.”
Everyone is different, however. Some people wake up and rush to eat, feeling hungry first thing in the morning or craving energy to begin their day. Others, including advocates for certain diets, like intermittent fasting and keto, might skip the meal entirely. But, Harbstreet says there is little evidence to show eating or skipping breakfast is more effective than the alternative as long as you’re meeting all your health goals.
Claiming breakfast is the most important meal implies that lunch and dinner are less important. But eating a healthy breakfast doesn’t give you carte blanche to go wild for the rest of the day, and it doesn’t minimize your nutritional needs at later meals.
“We shouldn’t over-emphasize one meal over the other,” says Harbstreet. “Rather, I recommend prioritizing what and how we eat throughout the day. It’s important to tune into your body and connect with hunger and fullness while choosing foods that are satisfying and filling.” For example, hunger might strike at different times of the day, and it’s OK to respond to your body as needed, whether that means eating breakfast at 7 a.m. or 11 a.m.
“Being able to respond appropriately and consistently to hunger cues is more beneficial for our overall health and relationship with food than sticking to rigid food rules about meal timing,” adds Harbstreet. She explains that our energy needs change daily based on activity, sleep and hormones. Some days we may feel that we need food earlier or later, so there is no need to feel tied to a prescribed set of daily mealtimes.
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Mealtimes may also be disrupted by life’s many commitments, like work and family responsibilities, which may dictate a more practical approach to eating. Some days, you may be able to enjoy a hearty breakfast that will sustain you for the busy day to come. Other days, you might need to skip breakfast or grab a quick bite on your way out the door, and then emphasize hitting your nutrition requirements at lunch and dinner.
Whatever your feelings on breakfast, it’s best to balance your eating throughout the day.
“Eating balanced meals properly fuels our bodies and helps us feel our best,” says Harbstreet. Irregular meals restrict energy and nutrients, causing strain on the body and negatively impacting our immune system.
“We feel more alert and energized if we are eating enough throughout the day and honoring our hunger cues,” she adds. “For some people, this can look like eating every 3–4 hours, while others may find they’re eating more or less often.”
Ideally, each meal is also balanced and contains a combination of lean protein, fiber-rich or complex carbohydrates from grains, fruits or vegetables, and healthy fats. This RD-approved strategy results in nourishing and satisfying meals that leave you feeling full and satiated.
All meals are important, not just breakfast, so instead of following the tenets of an old marketing campaign, listen to your body. “Each person’s body and lifestyle are unique to them, so as a dietitian, I want to emphasize that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for meal or snack timing,” says Harbstreet. “This is why it’s so important to preserve and connect with your own appetite, rather than follow external food rules set by someone else or compare your eating patterns to theirs.”