Reviewed by Dr. Richard Foxx, MD
New research is suggesting that breaking your fast each morning could potentially significantly reduce the likelihood of heart-related death. If you’re regularly skipping breakfast—and even if you aren’t—you’re going to want to pay attention to this.
Intermittent fasting is growing in popularity and may indicate that avoiding breakfast can lead to weight loss, which is beneficial to overall health for most.
On the other hand, research has repeatedly shown that breakfast and heart health, as well as other conditions like weight gain and obesity, can be closely intertwined. It seems that each time an argument illustrating the importance of breakfast is raised, a counter-argument soon follows, all leading to the question: Is skipping breakfast bad?
There is science-based evidence on both sides of the argument, but when it comes to breakfast, perhaps the devil is in the details. It could be that what you eat and when you eat it play the biggest roles.
Skipping Breakfast Linked to Heart-Related Deaths
The latest piece of research showing the importance of breakfast was recently published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, and its results echo previous research, but perhaps with a little more alarm.
After tracking the health and dietary patterns of 6,550 Americans for about 20 years, researchers found a strong association between breakfast and heart health. People who reported rarely or never eating breakfast had an 87% higher chance of dying from heart-related causes than those who said they always ate breakfast.
The heart-related deaths included heart attack and stroke, with many more deaths coming from stroke. People who said they never ate breakfast were more likely to die from a stroke-related death at a rate of 3 to 1.
Researchers controlled for factors such as sex, age, race, and socioeconomic status.
Moreover, the study showed an association between breakfast and all-cause death in addition to cardiovascular-related deaths. Non-breakfast eaters had a 19% higher chance of dying than breakfast eaters from all-cause mortality.
Strong associations between skipping breakfast and type 2 diabetes and obesity were also observed, and both conditions are known risk factors for heart trouble. That said, deaths resulting from one of these conditions were categorized under the “all-cause mortality” data, and were higher for non-breakfast eaters.
Skipping Breakfast: A Multi-Faceted Attack
How can missing breakfast play such a huge role in your risk of dying? There could be a few reasons:
1. Appetite Regulation
One of the most talked about reasons is the fact that breakfast plays a role in regulating your appetite for the day. Research has repeatedly indicated that eating within about an hour of waking has the ability to regulate hunger hormones and appetite throughout the day.
When people skip breakfast, research has shown that they go on to eat more calories over the course of the day, by either overeating at meals or binge-eating in the evening. There are also associations related to what people eat—breakfast skippers tend to eat more calorically dense and low-nutrient foods during the day, which can also contribute to weight gain.
2. Insulin Resistance
Insulin resistance may be another byproduct of skipping breakfast. Research suggests that when the overnight fast lasts too long, insulin sensitivity is impaired. Insulin resistance is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes, which as noted, are also associated with risks to heart health.
3. Cholesterol-Blood Pressure Connection
Links between higher cholesterol and delaying food intake have also been recognized, which may again be tied to non-breakfast eaters’ tendency to break their fast with unhealthy foods. Waiting too long for breakfast may also increase blood pressure.
It should be noted that neither this new study nor others that have shown connections between health risks and avoiding breakfast prove cause and effect. Instead, the studies have found an association between not eating breakfast and death risk.
There might be more to the story when it comes to breakfast, apart from whether or not you eat it. What you eat for breakfast may be just as important, as well as what the rest of your overall diet looks like.
What to Eat for a Healthy Breakfast
Eating Danishes, muffins, donuts, or sugary cereals first thing in the morning is unlikely to lower your risk for health problems. Research has shown that eating a high-sugar breakfast that is low in satiety and overall nutrition doesn’t do much to help regulate appetite or limit daily calories.
It can, in fact, contribute to heart problems by promoting weight gain, insulin resistance, and high cholesterol.
There is evidence to suggest that protein can help regulate appetite and hunger hormones, as can high-fiber items like oats. Research has suggested that aiming for about 20-35 grams of protein in the morning can help limit snacking later in the day, keep you full, and promote better food choices throughout the day.
Even if you’re not big on protein, you can still eat a heart-healthy breakfast by including whole grains, fruit, and healthy fats.
Eating breakfast provides a great opportunity to boost your overall nutrition, which might be its biggest benefit. By starting your day on the right foot, you’re more likely to carry on throughout the day.
Some examples of heart-healthy breakfasts include:
1. Greek Yogurt Bowl
Morning yogurt bowls are easy and quick to make, and can provide a big blast of nutrition that’s healthy for your heart.
I start most of my days with:
1 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup almonds
2 tablespoons blueberries
Raisins (just a few)
It works out to roughly 25 grams of protein, 4-5 grams of fiber, along with a decent serving of healthy fats.
2. Spinach Omelet
Eating a spinach omelet is a really easy way to get in some protein and micronutrients before heading out to face the world.
You can make a small omelet with:
1/2 cup liquid egg whites
1 whole egg
1 cup baby spinach
1/4 cup diced tomatoes and other vegetables of your liking
A slice of whole-grain toast can help round it out by adding some fiber. And if you really want to hit a home run, spread some avocado on the toast!
3. Apple-Cinnamon Oatmeal
This simple breakfast staple is a great source of fiber that can help keep you feeling full until lunchtime.
All you need is:
1 cup water
1/2 cup dry, rolled oats
1 small apple, sliced or chopped
1 tablespoon peanut butter
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Mixing the oatmeal with peanut butter, apple slices, and a sprinkling of cinnamon can give it some flavor, while also adding antioxidants, healthy fats, and even more fiber.
You can add a little protein with a plant-based protein shake, or whey if you’re not vegan or vegetarian.
Heart-Healthy Eating Tips
Is breakfast really the key to a healthier heart? It’s difficult to say for sure. As important as breakfast is, its benefits are more likely connected to your overall eating habits than the hour of the day.
For example, while avoiding breakfast has been associated with weight gain, people practicing intermittent fasting can lose weight and often don’t open their “eating windows” until the late morning or early afternoon.
Successful intermittent fasters, however, tend to watch what they eat. They don’t eat junk, but instead stick to nutritious foods like vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains.
Eating these kinds of items regularly may matter more to your health than when they’re being eaten.
To maintain a heart-healthy diet at any time of the day, try:
1. Limiting processed foods
This is a big one. Calorically dense, low-nutrient foods contribute to inflammation, weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure. They can all be major players in heart disease. Cutting these foods out of your diet, or at least limiting them, can help reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke.
2. Eating more fruits and vegetables
Nutrient-dense, low-calorie fruits and vegetables—which includes virtually all of them—can limit inflammation, provide heart-healthy nutrition, and contribute to daily fiber intake.
3. Increasing fiber intake
Found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes, fiber is a key contributor to heart health. It can help improve your cholesterol profile, lower blood pressure, and reduce the risk of heart disease. Consuming fiber throughout the day is best, and it can help keep you full and satisfied between meals. Aim for 28-38 grams per day.
4. Avoiding sugary beverages
Soda, sweet tea, and fruit juices can all add empty calories to your day, making it very difficult to maintain a healthy weight. Those who consume large amounts of high-sugar liquids are at an increased risk for obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Stick to water and unsweetened beverages instead.
5. Selecting snacks wisely
When you get hungry between meals, think about more than just putting food into your mouth. Consider how that choice will affect you later on. Sure, a bag of chips or a chocolate bar may be what you want, but they surely won’t satisfy your hunger. You’ll only want more soon after, and they also offer zero benefit to your heart while posing plenty of risk. Useful, healthy calories coming from nuts, vegetables, protein shakes, yogurt, and fruit will keep you full and provide the tools to promote heart health.
Breakfast: Building a Healthy Heart One Day at a Time
Breakfast might not be the be-all, end-all of heart health, but it does appear to be a rather important meal. Research tends to lend itself to the idea that the first and last calories you consume each day can have major impacts on weight and heart health.
Starting your day with a larger, healthy breakfast can help offset late-day hunger and prevent evening snacking. Having slightly smaller portions in each successive meal following breakfast might help increase health and lower the risk of cardiovascular-related death.
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