This Could Be the Most Important Meal for Your Heart

Eating breakfast may not only help trim your waistline—it may also be healthy for your heart.

Medically reviewed in April 2021

Updated on February 9, 2022

You’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And, in fact, a growing body of evidence suggests that eating a morning meal has a protective effect on your waistline—and your heart. 

“Eating breakfast consistently may be a lifestyle change you can make to be healthier,” says Sam Aznaurov, MD, a cardiac electrophysiologist at Boulder Community Health in Boulder, Colorado. 

Start with a heart-healthy breakfast 
In January 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific statement on meal timing and frequency and their effects on heart health. The AHA cited research that found that people who most often skip breakfast rarely get enough vitamins and minerals. In addition, one group of studies conducted in the Asia-Pacific region found that breakfast-skippers are 75 percent more likely to be overweight or obese as people who regularly eat a morning meal. 

Additionally, a 2013 study of nearly 27,000 men aged 45 to 82, published in the journal Circulation, looked at meal habits. The study found a 27 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease among men who skipped breakfast compared to men who ate breakfast. (Eating late at night was associated with a 55 percent higher heart-disease risk, lending more weight to the notion that meal timing matters.)

It’s not just men whose hearts may be at risk from not eating breakfast. A 2015 study of more than 56,000 women suggests that those under the age of 60 who regularly skipped breakfast were at a higher risk of heart disease than women who regularly ate breakfast. 

Heart disease risk factors 
Worth remembering: In scientific studies where researchers simply observe people’s existing habits and health, it’s not necessarily the case that one finding (such as not eating breakfast) causes the other (worse heart health). Often, additional factors are in play.

Dr. Aznaurov notes that while eating breakfast probably does have a healthy effect on the heart and can help keep weight down in the long term, it’s also likely that people who skip the meal have other unhealthy habits that are contributing to poor health. 

“In the Circulation study, people who skipped breakfast are more likely to smoke, they drank about 40 percent more alcohol a day, and they were more likely to sleep too little,” Aznaurov says. They were also slightly more likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and be on medication for depression, but slightly less likely to have diabetes.

“The choice to skip breakfast may be associated with a more stressful lifestyle, which means more stress hormones,” adds Aznaurov. Stress hormones, in turn, can lead to worse heart health.

The Circulation study also looked at the number of calories the study participants ate at each meal.

“The people who skipped breakfast ate fewer calories overall, but ate about 40 percent more calories per meal,” Aznaurov points out.

Those excess calories may lead to bigger swings in blood sugar. Eat a huge meal and your blood sugar will often spike, then crash. “Then you go in search of sugary foods and eat another big meal,” Aznaurov says. "It’s a vicious cycle." 

Heart-healthy breakfast foods 
Aznaurov recommends simple, heart-healthy principles when choosing breakfast foods.

“People should be looking at foods that will give you long-lasting energy throughout the day and prevent blood sugar spikes,” he says. “Targeting things that are high in protein and fiber will get your day started right, give you energy, and help clamp down on hunger down the road so you’re not tempted to eat junk between meals.” 

In addition, if you’re going for grain products like cereals, porridge, or toast, it’s important to choose whole grains over refined grains, and to avoid excess sugar. Many ready-to-eat breakfast cereals are heavily sugared, and many fruit juices contain very high levels of natural sugars without the whole-fruit fiber that would ordinarily buffer them.

Aznaurov’s own go-to breakfast? Plain Greek yogurt with fruit. But, he warns, “avoid thinking you’re going to find the solution with one simple trick. That’s why fad diets fail.” It’s all about building an overall healthy diet—starting with your morning meal.

Article sources open article sources

St-Onge MP, Ard J, Baskin ML, et al. Meal Timing and Frequency: Implications for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention: A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017;135(9):e96-e121.
Cahill LE, Chiuve SE, Mekary RA, et al. Prospective study of breakfast eating and incident coronary heart disease in a cohort of male US health professionals. Circulation. 2013;128(4):337-343.

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