Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

Healthy start: Fill up on an oat-based bircher muesli bowl.
Healthy start: Fill up on an oat-based bircher muesli bowl. Photo: William Meppem

Chances are you were taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. A meal that refuels you after the overnight fast and provides you with the energy and nutrients to get through the morning; a meal that should be the largest we eat, especially to aid weight control and digestive comfort.

But the popularity of fasting regimes, and a coffee culture in which many of us replace our daily cereal with a large, milky coffee has significantly changed the way we eat breakfast.

So where does this leave our favourite breakfast cereal or hearty cafe breakfast meals? And how do we know if we should be loading up at breakfast or fasting it out until lunchtime? The most up-to-date research on breakfast is right here.

Roasted mushrooms with poached eggs, confit garlic and chilli kale.

Some data suggests eating a hearty meal early in the day aids metabolic rate. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Is breakfast good for us?

There is no one-sized-fits-all model when it comes to eating breakfast. Every person is different, as are their energy and nutritional requirements, which can differ on a daily basis. Nutritionally there are some key benefits associated with eating a meal early in the day, with regular breakfast eaters eating more dietary fibre, vitamins and less junk food and added sugars overall. There is also data to suggest that eating a hearty meal early in the day aids metabolic rate, with one study showing that people who ate a larger breakfast meal burnt twice as much energy as those who consumed a larger dinner.

What about fasting?

In Australia at least 12 per cent of adults skip breakfast regularly, and with intermittent fasting regimes dominating health headlines for some time now, more and more people appear to be moving away from a bowl of cereal and waiting until mid- to late morning before eating. While intermittent fasting has been shown to have a number of metabolic benefits, and is also associated with moderate weight loss over time, for lean individuals with high energy demands, there's no extra benefit that comes from extending the overnight fast beyond 12 hours. A 12-hour fast has been shown to support appetite regulation, weight control and digestive health.

The real issue

The less frequently mentioned issue associated with our breakfast choices is that we love to pick up breakfast from our local cafe, and cafe breakfasts are very different from those we prepare at home. Whether it is a jumbo milky coffee, which can contain more energy than a meal, fried bacon and egg dishes or sweet pastries and baked goods, many cafe breakfast options are packed with fat, energy and sugars.

What about the coffee?

Our love for lattes and flat whites can come at a nutritional price. A regular milk-based coffee contains a similar number of kilojoules as a slice of toast, and while the milk can be a nutritious addition, the growth of sweet plant-based milks commonly used by baristas can mean that you are getting a hit of added sugar with your morning brew without realising it. Replacing food in the morning with a milk coffee means you run the risk of delaying your hunger until later in the morning, when we are more likely to grab a sweet snack to take us through until lunchtime. Or, adding a large coffee to your regular breakfast can easily blow out your breakfast kilojoules.

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GOOD FOOD:             Jill Dupleix. MARCH 10: BREAKFAST SALAD. Photo: Edwina Pickles. Taken 3rd March on 2015.

Vegies for breakfast? Jill Dupleix's salad is a colourful way to start the day. Photo: Edwina Pickles

So, what is the best breakfast?

Nutritionally, a morning meal that contains quality protein and some fibre-rich, wholegrain carbohydrate will create a nutritional mix that will help to refuel the body after the night's fast, and keep you full and satisfied for several hours after eating. Specifically, protein-rich options that offer 2-3g of the amino acid leucine such as smoked salmon, Greek yoghurt, a couple of eggs, or a serve of pea-based protein powder will help to keep the hormones that regulate appetite under control, while fibre-rich foods such as wholegrain cereal or bread, fruit or even vegetables offer slowly digested fuel to help keep blood glucose levels controlled through the morning. If a milk coffee is a routine part of your breakfast order, factor it in as a part of the meal, and aim for less toast or cereal to account for the extra energy. Black coffee, coffee or tea enjoyed with a dash of milk or a piccolo on the other hand are low-kilojoule options that can be enjoyed freely.

What are the best breakfasts for weight loss?

Breakfast dishes of between 1250 and 1650 kilojoules, along with 20-30g of carbohydrates and 20g of protein will help to support appetite and weight control. A couple of eggs with a slice of wholegrain sourdough, a small breakfast wrap with smoked salmon, Greek yoghurt with berries and a couple of tablespoons of wholegrain cereal or a meal replacement shake are all healthy low-energy options.

SALMON OMELETTE. Jill Dupleix TEN RECIPES YOU SHOULD MASTER feature for Epicure and Good Living. Photographed by Marina Oliphant.

Jill Dupleix's classic omelette with smoked salmon and creme fraiche. Photo: Marina Oliphant

What time should I eat breakfast?

The most important thing to consider when it comes to breakfast is whether or not you are hungry when you are eating it. There is nothing wrong with waiting an hour or two after waking to eat, and in some cases, it is actually a better option as you are more likely to be hungry rather than eating simply because it is breakfast time. If you find that you are never hungry in the morning, aim to allow at least 12 hours between your evening meal and breakfast. Opting for light dinners such as grills with salad, soup or veg-based dishes too will aid digestion and help you to feel hungry in the morning. Failing that, if you are not hungry within two hours of waking, start with a small 1250-1650 kilojoule breakfast such as a slice of wholegrain toast with an egg or Greek yoghurt with fruit to give your metabolism a boost. A good general rule of thumb is to aim to eat something by 9am each day.

Should I fast or eat breakfast?

Fasting is a dietary technique that can help improve metabolic health and may have positive effects on cell health longer term. Fasting can also be used as an extremely effective way to get back in touch with your natural hunger signals. There are different fasting models, including low-kilojoule eating or longer overnight fasts of 14-16 hours. As a weight-loss strategy, aiming for 14-16 hours overnight without food may help to support weight loss, while low-kilojoule days may benefit all of us occasionally. If your goal is weight loss, and fasting is helping you achieve that, then continue fasting as you see fit. If, on the other hand, you have been fasting until lunchtime for some time and your weight is not changing, it may be time to reintroduce a morning meal.

Should I eat before my morning workout?

Again, it really depends on your goals. There is some evidence to show that exercising in a fasting state helps to increase the amount of fat being metabolised. If your workout is moderate (for example, a walk or early morning fitness session that is less than an hour), you do not need to eat. On the other hand, if you are active, lean and train at high intensity regularly, a small meal that contains some carbohydrate and protein such as an energy bar, slice of toast with nut spread or protein-rich yoghurt will help to fuel your workout and support muscle recovery.

Top breakfast options

Susie Burrell is a nutritionist and dietitian.