What I Learned About Diet Culture When I Researched That Study About Skipping Breakfast


Like almost a quarter of Americans, I skip breakfast. A lot. When I was a kid, I hated breakfast so much, my parents had to beg me to eat pancakes (pancakes!) before I left for school. As an adult, I usually drink a cup of coffee until it's 11 a.m. and it's finally socially acceptable to eat something with mustard on it. I don't necessarily feel proud of my breakfast-dodging ways — I've read all the research about how folks who consistently skip breakfast may be at at greater risk for developing chronic illnesses like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

But while some studies say that skipping breakfast could be downright dangerous to your long-term health, others suggest that the situation isn't as dire. Some say that the benefits of breakfast consumption aren't great enough that skippers should change their ways. Others — like one recently published in the British Medical Journal, which found that breakfast skippers may have lower body weights than folks who eat breakfast, though weight is not necessarily an indication of health — debunk platitudes about breakfast and its effect on our wellbeing. And while I do wonder if my breakfast choices are influenced by diet culture, I spend an equal amount of time listening to my hunger cues and not forcing myself to eat when I don't feel hungry, and wondering if I'm actually practicing intuitive eating.

It's a lot to chew on, especially before you've even had your second coffee. But it's a pressing question: can skipping breakfast ever be a healthy choice?

"There is research supporting starting the day with breakfast, as well as research saying you don't need to start the day with breakfast. This conflict speaks to the truth that one size does not fit all," Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN of Maya Feller Nutrition tells Bustle. While she notes that there is evidence that adults have improved cognitive function after consuming a nutrient-rich breakfast, "it truly needs to be individualized based on variables like age, stage of life, health, and physical activity." 

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There might be another reason we're so confused about breakfast: most research into breakfast focuses on test subjects' weight change, not how it impacts their cognition, energy, or overall health. "That's not a very helpful research model, because weight isn't necessarily an outcome that's within our control, nor is weight is a proxy for health," Rachael Hartley, RD, LD of Rachael Hartley Nutrition, tells Bustle. And while much of the weight change research is inconclusive, says Hartley, "there's much stronger research to support that eating breakfast is associated with higher nutrient intake, better glucose control, and improved cognitive functioning."

So why do so many of us feel compelled to skip breakfast? According to Hartley, we've been taught to think of breakfast as "optional," plus coffee and the stress of getting ready in the morning can suppress our appetite.

For me, I've never consciously skipped breakfast because I want to consume fewer calories. I just don't wake up hungry, and sometimes, I feel nauseous after eating in the morning. However, I know no one makes food choices in a vacuum, and I do wonder how much my belief that I'm "just not hungry in the morning" is influenced by growing up in a culture that pushes women to consume less whenever possible.

You can live without breakfast, but can you thrive?

There's no underestimating the impact of cultural ideas about dieting. Registered dietitian nutritionist Meghan Kacmarcik tells Bustle that "I hear clients (mostly women) tell me they don't like to eat breakfast because it makes them feel hungrier throughout the rest of the day. For most people, this is said in a way that equates feeling hunger with being a bad thing — that is very much a case of women internalizing messages from diet culture and the patriarchy in general that socialize women to minimize their needs." Hartley says, "For many women, skipping breakfast is one way to eat less calories, because we can 'make it' until lunch. And while you might not be keeling over from skipping breakfast, I think it's really important to evaluate how skipping breakfast might be keeping you from functioning at your best. You can live without breakfast, but can you thrive?"

If all of this has your wanting to re-evaluate your own breakfast habits, you might want to start by "[looking at your] overall eating patterns," says Feller. Thinking about how you feel "in terms of sleep, hunger, satiety, energy level, and so on ... can be a great way to check in with what's [happening] internally." Hartley says that regular breakfast skippers might not feel hungry when they wake up, but should try paying attention to other cues about their energy levels, like anxiety or low energy.

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While every individual is different, each expert I talked to for this piece generally endorsed the idea of eating breakfast. "While I'm a huge advocate for listening to your body," says Kacmarcik, "I think taking gentle nutrition principles into consideration can be helpful." She suggested eating something soon after waking, even if you don't feel particularly hungry, "just because we know it can help our body function better throughout the rest of the day."

And breakfast doesn't have to look a specific way in order to "count." In fact, Hartley says that breakfast skippers who want to change their morning habits might want to think of breakfast as a "mini-meal or a morning snack" instead, to lower the pressure. "You don't need to sit down to a full plate of eggs and toast for it to 'count' as breakfast. Having something as simple as cheese and crackers, fruit and nut butter, or a smoothie might be enough to give your body some fuel, but is easy to tolerate if you don't have much of an appetite."

As much as I would love to end this story with me joyfully presiding over a healthful breakfast spread like a character in a cereal commercial, that's not what happened. After talking to experts and reviewing the research, I ate a yogurt about an hour after waking up every morning for a week, even though I didn't feel especially hungry. It didn't make me feel nauseous, but I also didn't notice any real change in my energy or focus. I still didn't like it.

No studies say that eating breakfast was bad for you; at best, they said that skipping might not be as bad for you as everyone said. But I still avoid eating breakfast like it's a cold shower. I realized that that choice felt like toxic diet culture, and once I realized that, I couldn't really go back to thinking that skipping breakfast was somehow my choice. Which means that diet culture probably got in my head when I was a little kid refusing those pancakes, too. That's depressing thought, obviously. But it's a depressing thought that I have to deal with to go forward.

Framing it less as an issue of hunger than one of health and self-care helps, too. I might not adore eating breakfast, but I also don't adore brushing my teeth or having my annual physical exam with my doctor. But I do those things anyway, to try to be healthy, take care of myself, and be an adult. And now, I'm eating breakfast for the same reason. Every breakfast I eat doesn't have to excite me, any more than every Pap smear I get has to be a thrill ride. The important thing, for me, is just doing it.