Do you really need breakfast? Or three meals a day?

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Is nothing sacred?

Nine lifestyle writer Sarah Berry says we don’t need three meals a day to be healthy. Older readers will remember that three (square) meals a day was the common standard for much of society last century. That and “meat and three veg for dinner”*.

Square‘** meant a large, substantial meal that is filling, satisfying, and usually tasty. For much of human history, filling the plate was life’s major difficulty, so it was understandable such a simple, generous conclusion was reached in the comparatively abundant 20th century.

However, these days, food is not so simple. Much of it is over-processed and contains too much fat or sugar. With obesity rates soaring, causing diabetes and heart issues, we must push aside any nostalgic misgivings and listen.

Ms Berry is specifically targeting breakfast.

“Our metabolism won’t shut up shop if we don’t eat as soon as we wake up, it is not the most important meal of the day and there is no inherent biological need to have three meals a day (or the recent trend of six smaller ones).”

Although you should eat breakfast if skipping it means you’re so ravenous by 11am that you’re gorging on junk.

Public health nutritionist Dr Rosemary Stanton told Ms Berry: “Some people are just not hungry in the morning. If this is not due to eating too much the night before, the person may have the kind of metabolism that doesn’t require stoking first thing.

“I think each person should listen to their true hunger signals (the gut rumbling kind) and eat accordingly.”

Dr Stephanie Partridge says “there is evidence around shifting from three meals a day and adapting”.

“A person’s activity levels, sleep and where a woman is in her menstrual cycle are other factors that influence hunger and energy requirements,” she says. “These can change on a daily or weekly basis. No one approach is perfect for everyone just as no one approach is necessarily perfect for any one person all of the time.”

Read more: Dieting’s effect on the metabolism

Ask Dr Google what time to eat and you’ll be told to make sure you have a high protein breakfast between 6am and 9.45am in order to control body fat gain and hunger (womenshealth.com); eat breakfast within one hour of waking, ideally between 6am and 7am (stopcoloncancernow.com) and, if you’re trying to lose weight, eat breakfast at 7.11am (goodto.com).

Yes, precisely 7.11am is the optimum time to eat your first meal of the day. It’s 12.38pm for lunch and 6.14pm for dinner.

But accredited practising dietitian Dr Joanna McMillan says we shouldn’t be bound by strict times.

“One of the problems with setting up too many rules is the minute you put these defined boundaries in place, you’re then allowing your diet to be dictated by external cues rather than internal cues. You have to be flexible.”

Dr Partridge agrees.

“There don’t have to be any specific rules around this, it just has to work with the person’s lifestyle, their social life and their current health status,” she says.

“Even more so now with COVID, given everyone’s schedules are changing depending if you’re working from home. People’s meals have to adapt to those changing schedules.

“COVID has demonstrated we can work in different ways. I think it’s also demonstrated we can eat in different ways.”

Read more: Benefits of the Mediterranean diet

Investigative reporter Barry Estabrook compiled 12 popular diets for his book Just Eat: One Reporter’s Quest For A Diet That Works. His conclusions sound familiar.

“There is no one size. One researcher found a subject who lost 50lb [22.6kg] just by shifting to light beer. The point being is that how we eat is deeply personal. From the time we are babies, we don’t want anyone forcing us to eat anything. And a diet doesn’t work when someone tells you to eat according to their template.”

Mr Estabook insists “nothing is banned”. He identified and moderated his main diet sins – potato chips, cheese and booze. He has kept 11 kilos off and is no longer taking blood pressure medication.

This laid-back, sensible-sounding advice is welcome after the time restricted eating (TRE) and fasting trends went mainstream.

TRE is defined as “limiting daily nutrient consumption to a period of four to 12 hours in order to extend the time spent in the fasted state”.

Researchers believe it can “induce positive effects on the health of individuals who are overweight or obese, including sustained weight loss, improvement in sleep patterns, reduction in blood pressure and oxidative stress markers and increased insulin sensitivity”.

However, they also say “it is not fully clear whether positive effects of TRE are due to reduced energy intake, body weight or the truncation of the daily eating window”.

So, the message seems to be: Be Thine Own Physician. Eat when you feel truly hungry.

Aside from that, eat more greens in smaller portions, etc. Now that we have enough to eat, it’s our responsibility to do so in a healthy manner, whatever time of day we choose.

* Andrew Junor, a Melbourne-based academic told the ABC Australian cuisine prior to the 1950s wasn’t limited to meat and three veg. You can read about his thesis here.

** For those interested in the phrase ‘square meal’, worldwidewords.org says it not relevant that sailors used to eat off wooden boards. Or that in ye olde England, people ate off square wooden plates. Or that American soldiers were made to sit “bolt upright with arms at right-angles” during meals, forming a square shape. The word ‘square’ became associated with things properly constructed and shifted from building into other realms.

Early examples of square meal emerged from American miners’ slang. A reference in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of 1865: “A square meal is not, as may be supposed, a meal placed upon the table in the form of a solid cubic block, but a substantial repast of pork and beans, onions, cabbage, and other articles of sustenance.”

Bon appetit.

What do you think are the perfect times to eat? Do you swear by breakfast or “three meals a day”?

Read more: Diet choices that ruin lives

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Written by Will Brodie



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