It’s famously dubbed the most important meal of the day, yet half of us still don’t bother with breakfast. Now research has linked skipping brekkie with higher heart attack risks, will that finally change? Lisa Salmon reports.
The supposed benefits of eating a good breakfast are endless, from its metabolism-boosting powers to staving off mid-morning hunger pangs.
But recent research added a new factor to the mix, when it was found that men who regularly skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of heart attack or death from coronary heart disease than those who routinely ate a morning meal.
The study, by Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) in the USA, is the first of its kind to indicate a direct link between the two, and found that breakfast-skippers were generally hungrier later in the day and ate more food at night, perhaps leading to metabolic changes and heart disease.
It followed 26,902 men aged 45-82 over a 16-year period and even after accounting for diet, physical activity, smoking and other lifestyle factors, the association between skipping breakfast and heart disease persisted.
Lead author Dr Leah Cahill, a research fellow at HSPH, suggests: “Skipping breakfast may lead to one or more risk factors, including obesity, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, which may in turn lead to a heart attack over time.”
Cahill says the research team expects the results to apply to women as well, and they currently have a similar study with females under way.
However, though the benefits of breakfast are widely documented, more than half (59%) of British people are unaware of the health and wellbeing benefits that breakfast can offer, according to research carried out for Breakfast Week, which took place earlier this year.
Half of the 2,000 people questioned skipped breakfast at some point during the week, with 15% not eating a morning meal at all.
Victoria Taylor, senior dietician at the British Heart Foundation, says: “In the morning rush it can be all too easy to skip breakfast, and the Harvard study suggests this could have a bigger impact on our health than we might think.”
She suggests wholegrain toast or cereals like porridge with low-fat milk are a good way to start the day.
“Try a sliced banana or dried fruit on top and you’ll be on your way to five-a-day before you’ve even left the house,” she adds.
“A healthy and filling breakfast can make that mid-morning biscuit less tempting, as well as giving you another opportunity to widen the variety of foods in your diet.”
While lifestyle factors were taken into account in the Harvard study, the results may simply show that people who have a regular breakfast also tend to have healthier lifestyles, says British Dietetic Association spokesperson Gemma Critchley.
“Is it that people who regularly skip breakfast often tend not to lead healthy lives anyway?” she asks.
Often people skip brekkie to save on calories.
The Breakfast Week research found that one in 10 people avoid it in a bid to lose weight - although it also showed that those people are twice as likely to eat a bag of crisps mid-morning.
Indeed, other studies have suggested that eating a good breakfast can actually help you make better food choices throughout the day.
Brain scan research from London’s Imperial College last year found that skipping the first meal of the day led the brain to respond more positively to unhealthy foods and seek out higher-calorie snacks and meals later on.
Yet, on the other hand, a small study from Cornell University in the USA recently found that, although students who skipped breakfast were hungrier than those who didn’t, they didn’t eat more at lunch, or at any other eating occasion later on. In fact, by the end of the day, the breakfast skippers consumed an average of 408 fewer calories.
But whether breakfast helps or hinders weight loss attempts, Critchley points out that it certainly provides an opportunity to eat nutrients that may not be as easily available throughout the rest of the day, such as the fibre in cereals.
Fibre can help with weight control, as it makes people feel fuller for longer, and has also been linked to lower cholesterol levels.
At the other end of the healthy breakfast spectrum are fry-ups, although Critchley says there’s nothing wrong with a full English every now and then as a treat.
The high fat content does, however, mean they shouldn’t be eaten frequently.
And while cereals are a good choice, those with a lower fat and sugar content are healthiest, she says, and many contain hidden salts and sugar.
Grabbing a cereal bar on the way to work may be convenient but Critchley warns that “they might not be that different from eating biscuits”.
She adds: “If you’ve had a good breakfast, it gives you a more sustained energy release than if you pick at things like biscuits during the morning.
“A good breakfast will keep you going a lot longer and stop you reaching for the biscuit tin.”