Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Research shows that eating breakfast is an essential component of staying mentally astute and is considered a cornerstone of cognitive health.
This new study analyzed the results of the 1997–2006 China Health and Nutrition Survey, which recorded the eating habits—and performance on cognitive tests—of more than 3,000 people aged 55 and up over a 10-year period. The results of the study were clear: those who skipped breakfast were more likely to have lower test scores, while those who distributed their caloric intake across three meals a day were more likely to have higher test scores. "Breakfast skipping was associated with significantly worse cognitive function and faster cognitive decline over time," the authors concluded.
This is significant research, as not only does it reaffirm the importance of balanced nutrition, but it lays the groundwork for better understanding how cognitive ability is impacted by distribution of total energy intake across meals.
A clear pattern emerged from this study: those with a relatively evenly divided number of calories at each meal earned higher cognitive scores compared to the other groups that had the tendency to clump together their calorie intake at any point in the day.
Another cohort study out of Japan backs up these findings. This short-term study, which included 712 older adults and measured skipping breakfast and cognitive decline, found a higher incidence of decline in cognitive scores for those who skipped breakfast—accounting for more than double the likelihood.
If that doesn't inspire you to start thinking about meal timing and what is on your plate when, multiple studies have also linked skipping breakfast to other health concerns and unintended side effects, including obesity, heart disease and mortality, type 2 diabetes, worse mood, and even anxiety.
How does breakfast help your brain?
The benefits of breakfast do not discriminate by age! One longitudinal study of children assessed at ages 6 and 12 found an association between higher IQ scores and those who regularly ate breakfast (compared to those ate breakfast infrequently).
Not eating breakfast can also lead to higher calorie intake at your next meal. Ensuring you're eating a healthy breakfast and choosing nutritious food rich in vitamins and nutrients is essential for acquiring optimal amounts of energy to tackle your daily activities—including exercise, which may be hard to do on an empty stomach.
Other health benefits of breakfast
Eating breakfast isn't just good for your brain; there are a plethora of other benefits to making the most out of your morning meal. Since it's your first meal of the day, quite literally breaking the "fast" of the night before, it's a great space to set your intentions, refreshed from sleep and ready to start your day.
Eating breakfast can help:
Support working and learning activities, as well as work performance
Reduce the risk of cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease
Lower risk of obesity and diabetes (by between 35 to 50%, according to research)
Support healthy blood sugar levels
It's even been suggested that breakfast's impact on cognitive health is strongly linked to blood (and brain) glucose levels. Since glycogen stores are depleted by digestion while you sleep, your brain cannot function optimally until those healthy blood glucose levels are restored. This is typically why when you're hungry, you experience both a drop in your blood sugar and difficulty focusing.
How to choose a healthy breakfast?
Making sure you're getting the right nutrients to "feed your mind" and jumpstart your metabolism can be tricky with all the (tempting) options out there. But there are several healthy breakfast foods to keep in mind when you're deciding what to eat.
Try to choose whole and unprocessed foods and look for protein rich options to ensure that you're supporting your energy to start your day as well. Getting at least one serving of fruit or vegetables is a good way to ensure that you're keeping up with your recommended dietary intake.
Some good options include a quinoa breakfast bowl, which contains both whole grains and protein (and can be enjoyed savory or sweet!). Or, for those who enjoy a more traditional style breakfast, protein powder waffles are a delicious protein enriched option as well. Other lower effort meals include probiotic-rich yogurt with brain-healthy berries or whole grain bread with avocado for some healthy fats.
Other notes on cognitive health
Exercise—The brain-boosting health benefits of exercise are undeniable. Not only does physical activity support your memory and focus (there's even evidence that it can fight dementia). Exercise is also great for boosting your mental health, as well as your mood and energy levels. A good rule of thumb for overall health is getting in at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day, five days a week.
Sleep—Proper rest is one of the pillars of overall health, and comes with a wealth of benefits, but it's particularly important when it comes to supporting cognitive performance. Catching some ZZZs influences how your brain processes and keeps information and memory, contributing to better recall, an asset for anything from professional and academic performance to fondly replaying memories. On the flipside, lack of sleep can negatively impact everything from your blood sugar to weight gain. Make it a goal to get restorative sleep each night (the CDC recommends 7-9 hours).