Man walking out of the house too busy for breakfast

Skipping Breakfast Linked to Faster Cognitive Decline

Skipping Breakfast Linked to Faster Cognitive Decline

Scientifically reviewed by: Michael A. Smith, MD

The old adage, "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day," has been a part of cultural consciousness as long as anyone can remember. While most may think that it's another clever marketing ploy to sell breakfast food, there is some truth to the phrase. Though the jury is still out on whether breakfast is the most important meal, according to a recent cohort study published in Life Metabolism, it pays not to skip it. 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 didn't eat 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.

Is skipping breakfast unhealthy?

Especially with a "go-go-go" kind of lifestyle, it can be easy to overlook and inevitably skip breakfast. You tell yourself that you'll grab something later, and before you know it, it's time for lunch and the thought of breakfast is far behind you. But, this mentality can work against you, particularly when it comes to keeping your brain sharp as you age.

The cohort study aimed to understand temporal patterns of energy intake (TPEI) and what cognitive impacts it may have. The study participants were given dietary assessments and cognitive tests (up to four times over the 10-year study). These dietary assessments analyzed daily energy intake from:

  • Breakfast

  • Lunch

  • Dinner

  • Morning snacks

  • Afternoon snacks

  • Evening snacks

Each of the participants' styles of eating was assigned a variety of labels, including:

  • Evenly-distributed

  • Breakfast-dominant

  • Lunch-dominant

  • Dinner-dominant

  • Snack-rich

  • Breakfast-skipping

A clear pattern emerged: those with "evenly-distributed" styles of eating (so, a relatively evenly divided amount 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. And compared to the evenly-distributed group, the breakfast-skipping associated pattern had the lowest cognitive scores—and were associated with faster cognitive decline by 0.14 points per year.

Does breakfast make you smarter?

So did the study prove that eating breakfast makes us smarter? Not quite. Because this was a cohort study, it wasn't interventional but rather observational over time, so causation couldn't be established.

All the same, the authors concluded that those who followed the evenly-distributed pattern were better off in the long run in terms of cognition, noting that "maintaining balanced energy intake across three major meals was associated with significantly better cognitive function than the other five unevenly distributed patterns."

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?

Keeping your noggin sharp is one of the most important aspects of aging well and living a long and fulfilling life. At the start of the Chinese study, the participants received a phone-based cognitive test that rated them from 0-27 points (with 27 being the highest) on measures of brain function. They were rated on their immediate and delayed word recall, backward counting, and the speed at which they counted down from 7 across certain figures. And as the study found, the breakfast-skipping group experienced the fastest cognitive decline, while the evenly-distributed group had the greatest positive impact on their cognitive function of any of the other groups, confirming the impact breakfast has on a healthy brain.

And the benefits of breakfast don't discriminate by age! One longitudinal study of children assessed at ages 6 and 12 found an association between higher IQ scores (5.54 points for verbal and 4.35 points for full IQ scores) and those who regularly ate breakfast (compared to those ate breakfast infrequently).

True or False: People Who Skip Breakfast Eat More Later in the Day

This can be true! Not eating breakfast can 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:

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 can't 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. It really pays not to skip it!

How to choose a healthy breakfast?

While it's true that eating breakfast is essential, it's arguably just as important to be mindful of what your first meal of the day includes. When a quick donut or bagel beckons, healthy eating may be easier said than done. 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 if you can, and look for protein rich options to ensure that you're supporting your energy to start your day as well. Getting in at least a serving of fruit or vegetables is a good way to ensure that you're keeping up with your recommended dietary intake.

Some good morning meals 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.

How to boost your cognitive health? Natural strategies

While nutrition and good breakfast habits are important, they aren't the only way to ensure that cognitive health stays at the top of your mind.

  • Never stop learning

    —We are all lifelong students, and encouraging yourself to learn something new benefits your brain cells. When you take on a new skill that may be outside of your comfort zone, your brain tells its hardworking cells to form new connections.
  • 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. And when it comes to moving your body, there's no-one-size-fits-all approach. From yoga and HIIT to Tabata and weight training, there's truly something for everyone. 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).
  • Nutrient strategy

    —A smart nutrient routine includes brain-supportive nutrients. This can include everything from targeted nootropics to the mental-maximizing power of herbal sage and magnesium, in addition to whole-body health must-haves like fish oil. Including these nutrients in your daily regimen will help you keep your head in the game for many years to come!



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The Life Extension Health News team delivers accurate information about vitamins, nutrition and aging. Our stories rely on multiple, authoritative sources and experts. We keep our content accurate and trustworthy, by submitting it to a medical reviewer.