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Breakfast Backtrack: Maybe Skipping The Morning Meal Isn't So Bad

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day? And does eating a morning meal help us maintain a healthy weight?

The breakfast-is-best dogma is based on a blend of cultural tradition and science (and more than a little cereal marketing.)

Some of the earliest evidence goes back to the 1960s, when researchers in Alameda County, Calif., documented residents' everyday habits. The long-term study linked eating breakfast — along with other lifestyle choices, including a good night's sleep and regular exercise — to improved health and longevity.

But in recent years, this association has come under more scrutiny. And what's emerged points to a more complicated conclusion.

For instance, researchers in Canada who studied the habits of about 12,000 adults concluded that "breakfast consumption was not consistently associated with differences in [body mass index] or overweight prevalence." And a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that, when it comes to weight loss, breakfast eaters do no better — or worse — than people who skip the morning meal.

Here's the deal: Lots of American adults aren't sitting down to breakfast anymore.

In our informal Twitter poll, almost 1 in 5 respondents said they skip the morning meal entirely, or just drink coffee. Another 25 percent of respondents grab a quick yogurt or energy bar at some point during the morning.

Our results mirror the findings of industry research. The NPD Group finds that Americans are moving away from prescribed mealtimes. The trend is most pronounced among millennials, who, according to NPD, skip twice as many breakfast meals compared with older Americans.

And, increasingly, what millennials are choosing to eat in the morning — when they make time for it — also marks a significant departure in eating habits: They're often opting for a hot breakfast instead of cereal.

How do we square the "breakfast-is-the-most-important-meal" belief with the shift in our eating habits?

If you sift through the scientific evidence, there doesn't seem to be anything magical about eating first thing in the morning. Lots of us aren't hungry until a few hours after we wake up. If you're a "grab-a-yogurt-at-10 a.m." person, that's OK.

And waiting to eat anything until lunchtime might actually work best for some of us. As we've reported, some dieters have found success with minifasts.

So, is there a downside to skipping breakfast — or not eating early in the morning? We put the question to David Ludwig, an obesity researcher, nutrition professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, and author of the book Always Hungry?

And his answer, in short, is this: What we eat in the morning may be more important than when we eat it.

"If [your] breakfast is based on highly processed carbohydrates [such as sugary cereals or sweet rolls], it may be as bad [as], or worse than, skipping breakfast," Ludwig says.

Why? All of those refined carbs and sugars can lead to a spike in blood sugar and insulin. "The high insulin programs the body for fat storage, making it hard to cut back calories," says Ludwig.

And a breakfast of highly refined carbohydrates may leave you feeling hungrier later in the day.

On the other hand, if you eat a protein-rich breakfast (think eggs), you're likely to be satisfied longer. "Non-carbohydrate foods, specifically protein and fat, slow down digestion," says Ludwig.

So, what's an ideal breakfast? We asked the advice of Drew Ramsey, a psychiatrist at Columbia University who studies the links between food and mood.

Ramsey pointed us to eggs, topped with a mix of fresh greens and pumpkin seeds, which are rich in magnesium, thought to play a role in fending off anxiety.

The body of evidence linking high protein to more satiety is growing. For instance, a new study finds that a high-protein breakfast may help people control their appetites and eat less the remainder of the day.

And it seems millennials are ahead of the curve on this advice: NPD Group's Darren Seifer says young adults are big on protein-rich foods.

They may not eat breakfast every day, but when they do, "we are seeing a greater number of younger consumers consuming eggs in the morning," he says. And based on NPD's modeling, this trend is set to accelerate.

In some ways, it seems as if we're going back to where we were at the turn of the last century, when a farmer-style, cooked breakfast was the norm.

We turned away from this when cereal was marketed as the healthier, more convenient alternative. "Americans really did make this shift ... to a lighter, grain-based breakfast," says Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The Invention of the American Meal. Cereal became the go-to option.

Now, habits are shifting once again.

This post is adapted from a story that originally ran last August.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.