What you need to know about breakfast and why we probably shouldn't skip it

They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but in a world of ever-evolving research and new diets popping up like bread from a toaster, should we still be breaking the fast every morning?

According to Nikki Hart, an Auckland-based nutritionist, breakfast's longstanding reputation remains for a reason.

"The popularisation of fasting has meant people have started to skip breakfast, because they're thinking, 'Perhaps I don't need it'. The longstanding data shows us if you don't have breakfast, you are more likely to have heart disease and diabetes as you age," Hart told AM on Monday morning.

"You might not be having a problem with it now, but you could have a problem later."

Research has yielded varying results on the benefits of intermittent fasting, but some studies have associated skipping breakfast with cardiometabolic risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure, unfavourable lipid profiles, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.   

A 2019 study suggested that people who regularly skipped breakfast were about 21 percent more likely to experience incident cardiovascular disease or die from it than people who regularly consumed breakfast. The risk of all-cause death was also 32 percent higher in people who regularly skipped breakfast than in those who regularly consumed it, the research stated.   

If a resolution of yours is to start eating breakfast, you might be wondering when a meal still counts as 'breakfast' as opposed to brunch or even lunch. While there's no hard-and-fast rule around when breakfast should be consumed in relation to your alarm clock going off, within two hours of getting up is a good bet, Hart explained.

"There is no rule to say you have to eat as soon as your feet touch the floor, but we do say within two hours of being up - it's important to regulate those blood sugars," she told AM.

"Especially if you've got a stressful job that demands a lot of concentration, you've got to be cognitive in the morning."

And as to what constitutes an ideal breakfast, Hart recommends opting for savoury over sweet - which AM co-host Melissa Chan-Green, who experienced gestational diabetes, agrees with.  

"I learned so much about this and how my body processes [food] as I had gestational diabetes during pregancy; it taught me a lot about what was the best thing for me to eat in the morning," Chan-Green shared.

"I switched to a savoury breakfast - I only have savoury breakfasts now - and it has changed my energy levels throughout the whole day."

Eating a breakfast based around protein, such as eggs or beans, can keep us fuller and more satisfied for longer and as a result, our blood sugar is more stable, Hart explained. On the other hand, eating refined carbs can cause our blood sugar level to surge, leading to a quick crash and feelings of hunger and fatigue.

"If you have a savoury breakfast, you are less likely to want something sweet as the day goes on. If you start with something like a presweetened breakfast cereal, it almost cues you to want more sweet things," she said.  

"A savoury breakfast is one with a decent amount of protein in it - eggs or beans, those kinds of things - that tends to stick with you a little longer, and you tend to feel fuller for longer. Protein, some healthy fats and some wholegrain carbs."  

Additionally, Hart warns that regularly skipping breakfast may reduce the amount of dietary fibre you're consuming each day, noting that while the meal can be the lowest in calories, it's often the highest in fibre.

Fibre is indigestible plant material such as cellulose, lignin and pectin, and is found in fruits, vegetables, grains and beans. Fibre provides bulk to your food, helps it pass easily through the gut, and retains water so it makes you feel full and eat less. Its main role is to keep the digestive system healthy.  

"We have a big issue here in New Zealand with bowel cancer and we just don't eat enough fibre. So, if you're skipping breakfast, you're actually on the backfoot [with fibre intake] for the rest of the day," Hart said.  

According to Bowel Cancer New Zealand, a diet that's high in fibre can reduce the risk of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and can help prevent bowel cancer. While reports suggest women should eat 25g of fibre each day and men 30g, research indicates most of us probably eat around 10-12g.  

The organisation also suggests breakfast is a good place to start if you're wanting to incorporate more fibre into your daily diet. For example, it recommends replacing fruit or vegetable juice with the whole fruit, or starting your day with a bowl of high-fibre cereal, preferably one that has five or more grams per serving. Topping your cereal with fresh fruit for an extra dose or adding wheat germ or bran on top of or while cooking your cereal are other good tips.

Watch the interview above.