Yes, You Should Eat Breakfast. Here’s the Best Type

In 1917, dietitian Lenna Cooper wrote, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” which has been repeated many times over in the years since. Interestingly, the phrase was part of an article edited by John Harvey Kellogg, who had already begun selling his famed corn flakes.

So, is the idea of breakfast’s importance merely a century-old marketing myth?

“There are many observational studies about the benefits of breakfast, but there’s not a gold-standard study that says it’s the most important meal of the day,” says UNC Health dietitian Shelly Wegman.

But even if breakfast doesn’t necessarily take the trophy for most important, it still provides a lot of benefits. Wegman explains why your morning meal sets you up for success and how to create a breakfast that works for you.

Why You Should Eat Breakfast

When you sleep, your body is hard at work digesting food, repairing tissues and consolidating what you learned. All of that takes energy in the form of glucose, or blood sugar. After a long night of energy use, you wake up with an empty tank.

Breakfast is your first chance to replenish your energy stores—or face the consequences.

“Glucose is the primary fuel for the brain, and when you’re running on empty, you’ll feel foggy and fatigued and find it hard to concentrate,” Wegman says. “Studies show that kids do better in school and retain more information when they’ve eaten breakfast.”

Breakfast helps you focus, think and learn. It also sets you up to make healthier choices for the rest of the day.

“The longer you go without eating, the hungrier you get, and you won’t make mindful choices when you’re hungry,” Wegman says. “That’s when you start reaching for more highly processed foods and foods that are higher in fat or salt. You may also overeat for the rest of the day in an attempt to get rid of your hunger.”

When You Should Eat Breakfast

For some people, breakfast is the top priority after waking; for others, the thought of eating right away turns the stomach. Wegman says to do what works best for you.

“You don’t have to eat first thing,” she says. “Try to eat within two hours of waking up. Getting something in your body will give the brain the jump-start it needs to focus.”

Eating soon after waking also helps keep your body’s internal clock on track. “When you wait too long to eat, it can throw off your circadian rhythm, which affects your metabolic rate,” Wegman says.

If you’re a fan of early morning workouts, Wegman says it’s OK to exercise on an empty stomach; you could also reach for a piece of fruit, a slice of toast, or a handful of dry cereal or crackers.

In the 90 minutes to two hours after your workout, however, you’ll want to refuel with a breakfast of protein and carbs. “That will maximize muscle growth and repair after you’ve used the energy stored in your muscles,” she says.

How to Choose the Best Type of Breakfast

The best breakfast is one that you enjoy and that gives your body energy for the day.

Do you dislike traditional breakfast foods such as cereal or eggs? Or does it seem impossible to cook a full meal in the morning? That’s not a problem—you are allowed to rethink what you eat for breakfast. If it sounds good to you, reheat a small serving of yesterday’s leftovers for breakfast. Sandwiches and salads are fair game as well.

“You just need something that can provide fuel,” Wegman says. “You don’t have to eat breakfast food or make a hot meal. You can eat what makes sense to you.”

Wegman says that the body processes glucose best in the morning, making it a good time to eat carbohydrates and high-fiber foods, while foods high in protein will provide an energy boost.

Some nutrients, on the other hand, will work against you. “If you eat a breakfast high in fat or sugar every day, or if you’re frequently grabbing a fast-food breakfast, you’ll probably feel more sluggish compared to how you’ll feel when you eat a tofu scramble or yogurt with granola,” Wegman says. “You still want to make mindful choices and avoid the highly processed options.”

If you’re usually rushed in the morning, plan your breakfasts. Wegman says there are many options that can be made in bulk and kept in the refrigerator for easy reheating or to grab on the go, such as egg bites and overnight oats.

“Even something as simple as string cheese and a piece of fruit is suitable,” she says. “Consider what will work for you and prep it ahead of time to save time later.”

Do you have questions about your diet? Talk to your doctor. If you need a doctor, find one near you.