“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” How many times have we heard that?
And has anyone else noticed that what passes for “breakfast food” is the nutritional equivalent of Halloween candy? How did we get bamboozled into starting our day with snacks and dessert?
You can’t live like a predator if you start your day eating like prey.
“Predators gorge and fast: prey grazes.
Rephrased for modern humans: predators eat meals, prey grazes on snacks.”
(From "Eat Like A Predator", my popular guide to paleo diet and life.)
“Breakfast” Is Most Likely A Neolithic Invention
Technically “breakfast” is your first meal of the day, whenever that is…but here I’ll use it in the popular sense of “a morning meal, eaten soon after waking”.
Our Paleolithic evolutionary context didn’t include artificial lighting—let alone late-night restaurants like Denny’s and Taco Bell. Humans can’t see well enough to hunt or forage in the dark, and even preparing food is relatively difficult (try cooking entirely by firelight sometime).
Furthermore, our Paleolithic evolutionary context doesn’t include chicken coops, granaries, dairy herds, or root cellars.
Therefore, it’s a reasonable assumption that our ancestors ate most of their food in the afternoon or evening. Game had to be found, hunted, killed, butchered, and usually cooked. Tubers and vegetables had to be found, dug, gathered, and prepared. So any “breakfast” eaten by hunter-gatherers would most likely have been leftovers from the night before—if they were lucky enough to have any.
For example, here’s a delicious Hadza “breakfast” of burnt monkey parts (skip to 1:35, or 0:45 for a demonstration of fire making):
It seems very likely that “breakfast” is a Neolithic invention—the creation of sedentary agriculturalists. No one knows the exact timing and size of meals in different agricultural societies throughout history, and I don’t put much stock in what passes for historical accounts…but it’s clear that we’re not going to reliably have food to eat soon after awakening unless we’ve got domesticated animals, or a storehouse of previously harvested and prepared grains or tubers. (Consider also the effort and cost of starting a cooking fire every morning, in addition to every evening.)
In support of this theory, I note that all of the traditional “breakfast” foods are from domesticated animals and traditional food crops. Eggs from chickens; bacon, sausage, and ham from pigs; milk from cows; oatmeal and toast and grits and porridge and hash browns. Red meat is infrequently eaten, and it’s considered unorthodox (or decadent) to eat hunted game like duck or venison for breakfast.
The Modern “Breakfast”: An Invention Of The Rich
As opposed to the leisurely life of hunter-gatherers, which usually involves dramatically less work than ours (the complete essay, the book, further discussion), farming is labor-intensive, and it usually starts at dawn with the rooster—so it’s not surprising that people would want to fuel up before beginning a long day of hard work. Historically, farmers seem to have eaten whatever food they had available: usually some sort of gruel, porridge, bread, grits, or previously cooked tuber…perhaps with meat if they were rich enough to keep animals, which most weren’t.
Keep in mind that most farmers throughout history were essentially slaves to their landowner, usually the king (cf. “serf”), if they weren’t explicitly enslaved. See the nomenclature in the Domesday Book: only the king could own property, and everyone else simply held it “of the King”.
(Much like all modern systems of government, in which “ownership” is merely the privilege of paying the government below-market rent in the form of property tax. But I digress.)
It gets worse. Early agricultural civilizations, all the way through Mycenean Greece, were, without exception, palace economies—systems in which everything anyone produced belonged to the god-king, and was taken from them and redistributed by the god-king’s representatives through the palace. Palace economies make North Korea look like a block party. (Further reading.)
In summary, the modern Western conception of the gentleman farmer and his family—owning their own land, keeping chickens, pigs, and a few cattle in addition to growing crops, living comfortably—has little precedent in history.
The modern American breakfast of bacon or sausage, eggs, toast, and hash browns is basically a variant of the full English breakfast—a creation of the British upper classes in the 1800s, which spread as lower strata of society became prosperous enough to afford it.
“To eat well in England, you should have a breakfast three times a day.” -William Maugham
Recap: “Breakfast” Isn’t What You Think It Is
Hunter-gatherers most likely ate breakfast infrequently, if at all. When they did, it was leftovers.
Farmers ate whatever they had, because they were performing hard physical labor all day.
The upper classes ate meat and eggs because they could, and modern Westerners eat it because we’re all rich by historical standards.
Science > Re-Enactment…But We Must Start Somewhere
It’s important to note that our eating habits shouldn’t be dictated by an attempt to re-enact the Paleolithic (an impossible task): they should be dictated by our biochemistry and controlled, randomized trials. However, since we all have to eat something while waiting for the trials to finish, and we must choose some point of departure for constructing our theories, I choose our multi-million year evolutionary history as hunters and foragers—not a few thousand years of agriculture, or less than one hundred years of industrial products like ‘vegetable oil’.
My conclusion: since the Paleolithic is our evolutionary context, humans are most likely well adapted to not eating breakfast at all. Are you really all that hungry when you wake up—or are you eating because you think you’re supposed to?
Is Breakfast Really The Most Important Meal?
Like many homilies and pieces of pseudo-medical advice, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” isn’t based on any evidence: it’s spoken by Gregor Samsa’s father in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.
“Drink eight glasses of water every day” is another piece of scientific-sounding advice with no basis in fact…but that’s another article for another time.
The Full English, or its American variants, are indeed a creation of the rich—but they at least have the benefit of being nutritionally complete and mostly made of real food. Skip the toast, cook your eggs and hash browns in butter or coconut oil, and you won’t be hungry again for a long time, maybe even dinner. Same with a 3-egg omelet and other American diner fare, like steak and eggs.
But that’s not what people eat anymore. Few of us have time to fix such elaborate fare in the morning—and if we did, we simply aren’t hungry enough to eat it so soon after awakening.
What do we eat now, for breakfast?
Dessert and snacks.
Let’s look at today’s typical breakfast foods:
- Pancakes with syrup, donuts, cinnamon rolls, “breakfast danishes”: Those aren’t foods, they’re desserts.
- Bagel, toast, muffin, English muffin: giant balls of “carbs”, i.e. chewy, crunchy sugar. Did you know that bread—even “heart-healthy” whole-wheat bread—has the same glycemic index as Skittles?
- Cold cereal: like bread, it hits your bloodstream even faster than white sugar. Yes, even Grape-Nuts and all those “healthy”, “high-fiber” cereals that taste like ground-up twigs…adding white sugar to your cereal actually drops the GI!
- Orange juice, all fruit juices: liquid fructose. Basically a soda with some vitamin C. Have you ever seen how many oranges it takes to make a glass of orange juice?
- Oatmeal: a bit of incomplete protein and lots of ‘carbs’ (sugar). Do you eat plain oatmeal? Really?
- And we make them with skim milk and fat-free cream cheese, just to make sure they spike our blood sugar even more quickly and leave us hungrier than ever.
Notice something missing from all of these?
How about complete protein? And essential animal fats? The nutrients we absolutely require to grow, repair, and maintain our body and brain?
What do you call nutritionally incomplete food? A snack.
Is there any science behind the push for breakfast? Are we just “doing it wrong”? How did we get bamboozled into starting our day like prey? And what can we do about it?
Live in freedom, live in beauty.
Do you have opinions? Do you know people with opinions? Yes, you do. Leave a comment, use the buttons below to share this article, and get ready for Part 2!