By: Farah Hillou, MSc, RD
Breakfast is often regarded as the “most important meal of the day”. The importance of consuming breakfast has been researched extensively, and has been shown to be strongly associated with improved diet quality, feelings of wellbeing, enhanced cognitive performance, and weight control1,2,3,4. Furthermore, some studies have reported reduced risk of cardiovascular disease as well as Type 2 diabetes among regular breakfast consumers.3,5
Despite the well documented benefits of the breakfast meal, it is often skipped. In Saudi Arabia, a study indicated that more than half of adolescents did not eat breakfast6. Similarly, a study in Bahrain reported that almost half of adolescent boys and two thirds of adolescent girls skipped breakfast7. There is currently little data on the incidence of breakfast skipping among adults. Reasons commonly reported by children and adults for skipping breakfast include absence of hunger, time limitations, lack of prior planning, and lack of available easy breakfast options6,8.
Several studies conducted in the Gulf region indicate low intakes of vital nutrients. One UAE study found that almost 90% of children (6-10 years) and 95% of adolescents did not meet current recommendations for calcium intake9. Furthermore, 95% of adolescents did not meet recommendations for dietary fiber9. Similarly, a study conducted in Saudi Arabia indicated that the majority of adolescents consumed less than the recommended intakes for calcium, iron, vitamin C and fiber6. In Kuwait, more than 90% of adults and children fail to meet the estimated average requirement (EAR) for vitamin D; two thirds did not meet the EAR for calcium, folate and fiber; and half did not meet the EAR for vitamins A and C10. These results suggest a need to increase intake of essential nutrients. Breakfast is a prime opportunity to boost intake of these nutrients, as they are found in many commonly consumed breakfast items.
Breakfast consists of up to 20% of total daily energy intake, and can provide a variety of key micronutrients, particularly those of public health concern such as calcium, iron, potassium, vitamin D, folate and dietary fiber11. Children who consumed breakfast had higher intakes of calcium, potassium, magnesium, phosphorous, vitamin D and fiber compared to those that did not 2,4,12.
Similarly, adults who consumed breakfast had greater intakes of vitamin C, folate, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium and fiber13. When breakfast is skipped, intake of these nutrients is often not compensated for in other meals12
Furthermore, children, adolescent and adult breakfast skippers were more likely to be overweight or obese, and have a higher waist circumference than breakfast eaters3,4,14,15,16. When tracking adolescents into early adulthood, those that ate breakfast at a younger age were more likely to carry on this habit as they grew older14. In addition to improved diet quality and weight control, eating breakfast is also strongly linked to improved cognitive function and academic performance1,17.
The positive contribution of breakfast to nutrient intake and diet quality largely depends on the types of foods consumed18. Current recommendations state that individuals consume a “nutrient dense” breakfast18. Proposed guidelines to build a quality breakfast meal suggest that breakfast provides 15-25% of total daily calories18. Thus for a Reference Intake of 2000kcal per day for an average adult, calories from breakfast range from 300-500kcal. The proposed criteria for an ideal breakfast also emphasize including foods from at least three of the food groups, with special focus on fiber-rich grains, lean proteins (legumes, eggs, lean meat), non-fat or low-fat dairy, fruits, and vegetables19.
Grains are a source of dietary fiber, and emphasis should be on whole-grain and bran-based grains which provide at least 3g/100g fiber18. For instance, consuming fortified ready to eat breakfast cereals have been shown to significantly improve average daily intakes of iron, vitamin D, folate and vitamins B1, B2 and B320. Dairy products are important sources of calcium and vitamin D. Fruits and vegetables are rich in vitamins A and C, folate and fiber18. Food and beverages high in added sugars and sodium must be limited due to their negative consequences on health if consumed in excess.
In conclusion, eating breakfast regularly is associated with improved overall health and wellbeing, healthier body weight, better cognitive function, improved diet quality, and reduced risk of chronic diseases18. A quality breakfast provides a balance of energy in proportion to an individual’s needs depending on age, gender, and activity levels18. Moreover, it includes a variety of nutrient-dense foods tailored to an individual’s personal preferences and cultural traditions.