Breakfast in the Green

Does Eating Breakfast Like a King Really Prevent Obesity?

Celebrity nutritionist Adelle Davis preached it. She said we should be eating breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper in the mid 20th century. Despite little evidence behind her advice, it has incredible staying power.

Popular and Controversial

Between 1947 and 1965, Davis published four hugely popular books on nutrition and health. In 1972, Time aptly described her as the high priestess of a new nutrition religion. She was a frequent guest of Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Passionate and often unencumbered by evidence, she believed that:

Alcoholism, crime, insanity, suicide, divorce, drug addiction and even impotency are often merely the results of bad eating.

The 1969 White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health described her as the single most harmful source of false nutritional information. But regardless of all that controversy, many of her beliefs endure.

Shaky Claims About Breakfast and Meal Patterns

Her belief in eating breakfast like a king is a prime example of such durable, unsubstantiated articles of faith. This week, the New York Times parroted her advice without ascribing it to her. Instead, the Times references a statement from the American Heart Association.

But in fact, neither the AHA statement, nor scientific evidence, supports a recommendation to eat a big breakfast. Some people skip breakfast. Some people enjoy it every day. Persuading people who skip breakfast to start eating it doesn’t help them with their weight. Randomized controlled trials have shown it. The AHA statement says it outright. “Advice related to breakfast consumption does not improve weight loss.”

The larger question of meal timing remains unresolved. The AHA advises that erratic patterns of eating are unhelpful. Heavier meals late in the day might be a problem, too. But that’s more of a presumption than a fact.

So perhaps we should set aside the king-prince-pauper advice from Davis. It’s an enduring myth, mixed with an unproven presumption.

Click here for more from the New York Times and here for the AHA scientific statement.

Breakfast in the Green, painting by Anders Zorn / WikiArt

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August 26, 2017

4 Responses to “Does Eating Breakfast Like a King Really Prevent Obesity?”

  1. August 26, 2017 at 2:05 pm, Sue cummings said:

    I devoured Adelle Davis books in the 70’s. I owe my career in nutrition to her. She was the reason at the age of 27 years old I decided to go to college and study nutrition!

  2. August 27, 2017 at 8:26 am, Pat Harper, MS, RD, LDN said:

    In my 25+ years of experience counseling overweight people, skipping breakfast & eating little or nothing at lunch, and then eating most/all calories in the evening is the classic pattern of individuals with obesity. But, eating a large, high fat breakfast is also counterproductive. Spreading calories out throughout the day in smaller meals and snacks seems to work best to curb appetite in most people. Eating the largest meal of the day at lunchtime and then a smaller dinner can also be helpful. I didn’t agree with much of what Adele Davis said, but her suggestion to have breakfast as the largest meal of the day may have some validity, but rarely practiced. Isn’t this the meal pattern of other countries with much lower obesity incidence?

    • August 27, 2017 at 11:51 am, Ted said:

      Thanks, Pat, for sharing your valuable experience and perspective.

      Your points about too many calories late in the day and spreading calories through the day seem completely reasonable. We just need real evidence to confirm these beliefs. In the absence of such evidence, the best strategy is the one you’ve been following for years. Find what works for each client to get them to the best health they can find.

  3. September 07, 2017 at 7:56 pm, Jillah said:

    Pat Harper your comment is so helpful. In my observation asian countries eat less breakfast and a plateful of lunch and the rate of obesity in asian countries is lower than those of western countries.