Bagels or Bacon? The Metabolic Breakfast

A new study from the University of Alabama appears to be setting conventional wisdom on its ear. The study, published online in the March 30 International Journal of Obesity, shows that eating a high fat breakfast actually may prevent many of the dangerous symptoms of Metabolic Syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome- also known as “pre-diabetes”- is a constellation of symptoms that includes abdominal obesity, high blood pressure, insulin resistance and high triglycerides. It frequently leads to full-blown diabetes, and even when it doesn’t, it puts you at significant risk for heart disease.

The researchers in the current study started with the accepted premise that too many calories equals health problems ranging from excess body fat to insulin resistance. That’s a big “duh”. But most studies have investigated the amount of calories and the type of calories (i.e. fat, protein and carbs in different proportions) eaten overall in the course of a day. What these researchers wanted to know was whether or not timing made any difference. In other words, did it matter if you ate your fat in the morning or the evening.

Conventional wisdom would say no.

Conventional wisdom appears to be wrong.

The researchers fed mice either a high-fat breakfast or a high-carb one. The mice that were fed a high-fat breakfast had normal metabolic profiles and were easily able to burn fat more easily during the day. But the mice that ate a carb-rich diet in the morning (and a high-fat meal at the end of the day) had increased weight gain, belly fat, glucose intolerance and other cardiovascular risk factors.

“The first meal you have appears to program your metabolism for the rest of the day,” said senior study author Martin Young, PhD., associate professor of medicine in the UAB Division of Cardiovascular Disease.

The researchers believe that a fat-rich breakfast somehow allows the eater to have a certain degree of adaptability during the day making it easier to adjust to the dietary mix we tend to typically consume during the day– this adaptability makes it easier for us to burn both carbs and fat.

In contrast, a high-carb breakfast seems to make it easier to burn carbs for the rest of the day. Fat? Not so much..

While some news organizations have reported this study in a way to make it seem like we should throw away our oatmeal and load up on bacon and eggs, the truth is probably a bit more nuanced (as it usually is). But two take-home points seems clear, because they fit with everything else we’ve learned over the years:

1) Don’t skip breakfast. It primes your metabolism for the rest of the day, and…

2) Have a breakfast with some fat in it. (That means you, egg-white omelet eater!) Also have some protein– as many other studies show that high-protein breakfasts lead to greater sense of fullness, less overeating during the day.

This doesn’t mean to throw away all your carbs at breakfast. But it does mean that it’s time to rethink the high-sugar, high-carb breakfast that used to be considered the epitome of health (i.e. orange juice, toast, Cherrios, etc).

That’s precisely what you don’t need if you want to be lean and healthy.