This September for Better Breakfast Month, we’re celebrating the first – and supposedly main – meal of the day. But how much truth is there behind the saying ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’?

The well-known phrase, still observed across the world, seems the kind of venerable wisdom up there with ‘milk gives you strong bones’ and ‘red wine is good for you’. But how does it stand up to the facts?

A short history of breakfast

Breakfast was no different from the other meals up until the late 19-century, when people became concerned that a ‘farm breakfast’ – a heavier meal usually consisting of eggs and meat – might cause indigestion for those in less physically-demanding jobs. The Industrial Revolution saw many workers expending significantly less energy than in agriculture work, and meals had to be adjusted to account for that.

A religious group called the Seventh Day Adventists, who also believed in the importance of a balanced diet, took this idea and ran with it. James Caleb Jackson is often credited as the inventor of the first breakfast cereal, which he called “granula”.

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Brothers John and William Keith Kellogg – of Kellogg’s cereal fame – improved on Jackson’s idea, by adding a mix of different grains and later creating the cornflake. This development made the newly-minted “granola” take off and the rest is early-20th century history.

It was due to William Keith Kellog’s savvy marketing campaigns, in which he included so-called “experts’ opinions”, that the idea of breakfast as the most important meal of the day was born. This helped sell Kellogg’s granola – and later other breakfast cereals – as the best way to start the day.

Fun fact: John Kellogg, a deeply religious man, believed that eating a balanced diet could temper or even extinguish one’s “sinful appetites”.

Talking to The Guardian, Abigail Carroll, author of ‘Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal’, said it was not just a moral incentive driving people to eat a healthy breakfast, but the idea it could play a part in work productivity. Cereal was also a vey convenient way of delivering a healthy meal before school or the working day – something brands relied on to push their products.

Breakfast mavericks

Before the advent of granola, folks typically ate a breakfast made of leftovers or whatever they had in the cupboards. There are a few famous historical figures who indulged in breakfast items we might find obscure today.

Elizabeth I was known to enjoy stew, bread and ale of a morn, inventor Thomas Edison was partial to a hot apple dumpling, while Jane Austen preferred cake.

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How important is breakfast according to science?

A study by researchers at Bath University about the importance of breakfast concluded there was no real difference in health between individuals who ate breakfast and those who did not eat until after midday.

The study was conducted over the course of six weeks and included 38 healthy-weight individuals divided into two groups. However, due to its relatively short timeline, the study has been criticised for not taking into consideration any long-term effects of skipping breakfast.

There is also the argument that people who eat breakfast are more likely to lead a healthier lifestyle. Another study involved 52 obese women on a weight-loss program. The women stuck to the same calorie intake each day, but half the group ate breakfast and the other half skipped it.

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Those who normally ate breakfast, but skipped it for the study, lost 8.9kg, compared to 6.2kg for those who continued eating breakfast as usual. Participants who normally skipped it lost 7.7kg when they started eating it compared with 6kg for those who were still skipping it. Researchers said the results showed it was the change in routine more than breakfast itself that encouraged weight loss.

Other researchers claim skipping breakfast can lead to larger spikes in blood sugar levels, and say the meal is important to keep our body clock in check.

Appetite researcher Alexandra Johnstone told the BBC she thinks eating a late dinner is more likely to pose risks of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. This, she said, is because blood sugar control is better earlier in the day and by eating late at night, we are giving our body mixed signals.

What should you start your day with?

While eating breakfast might have little bearing on body weight, research suggests the nutritional boost from cereals fortified with vitamins could decrease risks of diabetes and heart disease. Other studies have identified a pattern correlation between improved brain function, memory and breakfast consumption, but more evidence is needed.

However, it does seem the high sugar content might counteract the health benefits of cereal, with some breakfast brands containing more than three-quarters of an adult’s recommended sugar intake per portion. So far, studies on whether our bodies deal better with high sugar intakes early in the morning,s or later in the day, have mixed results.

Something that does seem obvious, however, is that eating a bigger meal earlier on, such as a traditional cooked breakfast, will limit over-eating later in the day, and what’s worse, stop us from caving in to midnight munchies. And that’s something researchers seem to agree on.

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The general consensus seems to be: it is better to eat something, particularly when our bodies are telling us we’re hungry. A hearty breakfast might do us good, but only in the wider context of regular and balanced eating habits.

After all, when wise foodie author Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin proclaimed ‘you are what you eat’, he wasn’t just referring to breakfast.

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