updated 10/13/2006 8:14:57 AM ET 2006-10-13T12:14:57

Messages encouraging us to eat breakfast usually focus on benefits related to weight control, concentration and work performance, or overall health. It’s important to distinguish, however, between the benefits of eating breakfast and those related to what we eat for breakfast.

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Eating breakfast shows up consistently among the habits of people who have lost weight and maintained their loss. In a study of members of the National Weight Control Registry — a group who have all lost at least 30 pounds and maintained the loss at least a year — 78 percent say they eat breakfast daily and almost 90 percent say they do “most” days. Only 4 percent say they never eat breakfast, substantially less than the national average of 25 percent of adults who say they skip breakfast.

Although it might seem that skipping breakfast would make weight control easier, studies suggest that eating breakfast may help reduce calorie intake later in the day. People who skip or eat an inadequate breakfast may find midmorning a time they are likely to eat high calorie foods. They may also get extremely hungry at lunch and overeat. Studies of binge eating consistently link it with a pattern of eating little in the morning and large amounts near the end of the day.

Sharper minds
Most research associating breakfast with mental acuity and emotional well-being has focused on youth. Studies have found that children and adolescents who eat breakfast show improved memory and test grades. The relatively few studies of adults show more mixed results. These studies suggest breakfast brings benefits in memory, energy level and mood.

Specific food choices at breakfast probably change its effects, however. Reflecting the national average, most people in these studies most probably consumed ready-to-eat cereal for breakfast. Chocolate donuts, or even a big plate of sausage and refined grain pancakes, may not necessarily bring the same benefits as found in these studies.

Several studies suggest breakfasts that slowly release carbohydrate into the blood help memory and concentration more than those that rapidly release large amounts. Carbohydrates are released slowly by foods that contain whole grains and solid fruit rather than refined grains (whether bread, pastry or cereal) and fruit juice or soft drinks.

One reason breakfast can benefit overall health is that it presents one of the main opportunities for people to take in nutrients often lacking in the American diet. Studies often link eating breakfast with higher daily intake of fiber, calcium, iron, folic acid, and vitamin C.

Whole grains, fruit and protein
Breakfast provides easy options to meet the goal of three or more servings of whole grains, for example, via whole grain cold cereal, oatmeal and whole grain toast. Breakfast is also a great time to get in at least one serving of fruit or vegetables — perhaps in an omelet or vegetable juice. It is far easier to reach the recommended daily total of five to ten servings of vegetables and fruits when they are a part of meals and snacks all day long.

For a long-lasting, health-promoting breakfast, one formula is to combine a whole grain, a fruit or vegetable, and a healthful source of protein. For the latter, choose a food that is either low in fat, such as skim milk and low-fat yogurt, or contains healthful fat, such as peanut butter and walnuts.

People who aren’t hungry in the morning often find that if they eat less at night, they begin waking up hungry. For others, a piece of fruit to start the day and a healthful early morning snack may work best or help transition them to a breakfast habit.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research  in Washington, D.C.

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