In his new book Breakfast Is A Dangerous Meal, scientist Terence Kealey says the 'most important meal of the day' does far more harm than good. So should you be skipping breakfast?
A diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes led clinical biochemist Professor Terence Kealey to write his explosive new book Breakfast Is A Dangerous Meal. The overall message of the book is simple: everything you’ve been told about breakfast as ‘the most important meal of the day’ is wrong. Eating breakfast is bad for your health and skipping breakfast is far better for you.
If you’re rolling your eyes at this point and thinking, ‘here we go, not another piece of extreme New Year diet advice’ you could be in for a surprise. Professor Kealey’s book is rigorously researched and he makes a compelling argument against our morning diet.
In Breakfast Is A Dangerous Meal, Kealey sets out to prove that eating first thing greatly increases the number of calories a person consumes in a day, causes hunger pangs later in the day (which do not arise if the person skips breakfast) and can lead to the development of cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes. We called Kealey to quiz him on his findings.
How did Kealey first discover that breakfast is a dangerous meal?
When Professor Kealey was first told he had Type 2 diabetes, he was given the conventional advice – eat three meals a day and no skipping breakfast. But after having a bowl of wholemeal porridge (no sugar) in the morning and studying the glucometer he had been given by his doctor, Kealey found that his blood sugar levels were going through the roof after eating breakfast, and then spiking frequently over the course of the day. This didn’t occur when he was skipping breakfast.
In a study he cites by Professor Jens Christiansen from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, thirteen adults with Type 2 diabetes were asked to divide their time between eating three meals a day (with breakfast) and two meals a day (without breakfast). The patients consumed the same amount of calories, compensating on the two-meal days by having a bigger lunch and supper. The experiment showed the patients’ blood glucose levels spiked dangerously when they broke their fast first thing and remained more volatile over the course of the day, but on the days when they ate just lunch and dinner (skipping breakfast in the process) the increase in blood sugar level was gentler and more gradual after the two meals. This is important as spikes in blood glucose can double a person’s risk of dying from a heart attack or stroke.
But why is eating in the morning worse than eating later in the day?
‘Not all meal times are equal’ says Kealey. One big reason is our circadian rhythm, which determines the release of hormones that regulate our body. One of these hormones is cortisol – also known as the ‘alertness’ hormone – which is higher in the morning to help wake us up, falling by the evening to help us sleep. But as the body wakes it goes into ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, with cortisol also working to resist insulin and raise the levels of glucose in our blood (you know, in case we need a sudden burst of energy to run away from a predator). ‘The morning is a time of natural insulin-resistance’ he writes, ‘eating then will help both provoke and aggravate the metabolic syndrome, which is the mass killer of our day.’
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So what about the argument that eating breakfast helps you lose weight?
‘The glucose spike caused by eating breakfast does one of two things’ Kealey says, ‘firstly it is in itself dangerous. You can show very clearly that people who get glucose spikes increase their likelihood of having a heart attack or a stroke, which is hugely dangerous. But probably even worse, glucose spikes precipitate hunger. People who eat breakfast (and this is something that’s really been ignored, the scientists have done us a real disservice here) the myth is that by eating breakfast you eat less for the rest of the day. That is just untrue. People who eat breakfast end up eating many more calories. If you eat 250 calories at breakfast you won’t eat 250 less calories at lunch. Also an astonishing number of people, by eating breakfast, find they feel hungry mid-morning and those hunger dips continue in the afternoon at around 3 or 4.30.’
So what are the main effects of eating breakfast on the body?
Kealey says this can be broken down into three key points…
1) ‘Eating breakfast is itself a source of glucose spikes, which are dangerous’
2) ‘It increases your calorie load, which in a world of Type 2 diabetes and obesity is also dangerous.’
3) ‘It stimulates you to feel more hungry than you otherwise would do.’
But what about all these studies that say thin and healthy people eat breakfast?
‘Why is it for 150 years the medical profession has been quite united behind breakfast?’ says Kealey, ‘it’s done by weight of papers. It’s very easy to produce papers which show an association between good health and breakfast.’ But there’s a big difference, he points out, between association and causation. ‘People at the top of the socio-economic pile do as they’re told – if you tell people in this group to eat breakfast then that’s what they tend to do.’ But these people also follow many other pieces of advice that contribute to good health, e.g eating a balanced diet and exercising. ‘At the bottom of the pile what happens is that people tend to lead more chaotic lives – they often don’t have a lot of money, they’re not in control. In the morning they tend not to eat breakfast’ he says. But that doesn’t mean the people from a lower socio-economic group are unhealthy because they’re skipping breakfast.
To illustrate this point, in Breakfast Is A Dangerous Meal Kealey argues that teenagers who smoke are more likely to become pregnant, but you’d never say smoking causes pregnancy. ‘Cereal companies pay for hundreds of papers – and I do mean hundreds – showing that people who eat breakfast have a lower rate of heart disease, or a lower rate of strokes. Anything that looks like it could be related to breakfast, because it looks persuasive. And they always say “of course it is only an association, however.”’ None of this is completely dishonest, Kealey points out, but it is ‘an artful association of data’ that distorts the argument in favour of not skipping breakfast.
Have people always eaten breakfast?
No. For thousands of years, Kealey points out, only labourers ate breakfast and the ‘sedentary workers’ (e.g the aristocracy) did not. ‘When the Tudor period came along’ says Kealey, ‘and we all started to adopt a work ethic, all members of society, even people at the top of the pile started eating breakfast. You then had these extraordinarily perceptive Tudor doctors saying “look unless you’re a manual labourer you don’t need three meals a day, because you’ll get fat and that’s unhealthy” – I find that incredibly prescient because they were dead right.’
Who is Kealey’s book primarily aimed at?
Breakfast Is A Dangerous Meal is aimed at two groups of people, he says. The first is the people who don’t like eating breakfast but feel they should. ‘My daughter’s boyfriend positively dislikes breakfast’ Kealey says, ‘he was forced to eat it by his family growing up because that was seen as his biochemical duty – there are millions of young people like that whose bodies are being damaged by eating a meal that they just don’t want to eat. My book is primarily for those people – liberate yourself from this tyranny which is based on nonsense.’ The second category? Anyone over the age of 40. ‘If you’re under 40 and you’re very fit and slim, breakfast is probably not going to do you any harm, though it might lead in later life to metabolic syndrome’ he says, ‘over the age of 40, unless you are very slim and fit, you really shouldn’t be eating breakfast. If a person with a BMI of over 25 tells me they can’t give up breakfast, it’s a bit like saying “I can’t give up my cigarettes” – it’s something they just have to do.’
What should these two groups of people do?
Kealey’s advice? Not a calorie before noon. ‘I’ve had so many people who have tried this and what they’ve found is that they’re no longer getting these desperate sugar rushes where they’re dashing to eat their muffin at 11 and their chocolate at 3 o’clock – they actually end up eating more healthily.’
But if you really HAVE to eat breakfast?
The good news, he says, if you’re fit, slim and young you can get away with eating breakfast, so long as it’s low on carbohydrates. If you don’t fall into that group you should avoid carbs altogether, particularly cereals – which Kealey describes unequivocally as ‘the food of the devil.’
‘I know that many breakfast cereals are wholemeal and therefore the idea is that these will be healthier for you than refined carbohydrates. But wholemeal will still get broken down to sugar.’ Kealey instead suggests a couple of boiled eggs followed by strawberries and cream. Why? ‘There’s no sugar in cream and there’s astonishingly little sugar in berries – they are surprisingly benign – and the eggs have protein which stimulates insulin release.’ If you’re still hungry after that then he recommends trying a Scandi breakfast option – a block of cheese.
Not sure you can manage a calorie ban before 12?
Cutting back should still help. ‘If the goal is “not a calorie before noon” then even someone who does not move to a completely calorie-free morning should nonetheless achieve a health bonus.’
‘Breakfast may sound trivial but it absolutely isn’t,’ he points out. ‘It’s a very important question: should you be eating two meals a day or three? When you put it into those terms you realise how crucial that question is. The answer is, of course, is that you should only be eating two.’
Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal by Terence Kealey (4th Estate) is out now
Terence Kealey trained in medicine at Barts Hospital Medical School before moving to Oxford for a PhD in clinical biochemistry. Between 1986 and 2001 he lectured on clinical biochemistry at Cambridge before moving to be Vice Chancellor of the University of Buckingham. He is now a visiting scholar at the Center for the Study of Science at the Cato Insitute, Washington DC, where he is focusing on food policy.