Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day, according to a recent study on the risk factors of Type 2 diabetes.
Genetics, physical activity and a healthy diet all play an important role in diabetes risk. However, a study from the Barcelona Institute for Global Health highlights another variable: what time of day you eat.
The study, which included more than 100,000 participants, found that eating breakfast after 9 a.m. increases the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by 59%, compared to people who ate breakfast before 8 a.m. And if you’re thinking about skipping breakfast altogether, the study found that people who did so also had a higher risk of developing the condition.
More than 37 million Americans have diabetes, and approximately 90% to 95% of that group have Type 2. The chronic condition occurs when the body develops insulin resistance, inhibiting it from efficiently using the insulin it produces, even as the pancreas continues to produce insulin and blood sugar increases. Serious health problems can emerge as a result, such as heart disease, kidney disease and vision loss.
Preventive factors include what kind of food you eat, how well you regulate your circadian rhythms and the number of times you eat in a day. Generally, a healthy breakfast includes extra fruits and lean meats, and little in the way of processed foods or added sugar. Similarly, a healthy lunch and dinner place an emphasis on vegetables and protein. But the importance of planning meal times shouldn’t be overlooked.
We asked experts about the importance of breakfast, and what you should eat in the morning and afternoon to lower your risk of Type 2 diabetes.
An emphasis on breakfast
In the Barcelona Institute study, there were 963 new cases of Type 2 diabetes among participants. The incidence was found to be higher among people who ate breakfast after 9 a.m. ― or who skipped it entirely ― compared to people who ate before 8 a.m.
There is an association between diet and circadian rhythms when it comes to the risk of Type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases. Our circadian rhythms follow a 24-hour cycle, affecting eating habits, digestion, metabolism and nutrition.
According to a 2017 study by the Department of General Surgery at Gazi University in Turkey, our biological clock synchronizes with our daily cycles and feeding patterns. Scheduling predictable meal times, at the same time each day, can help regulate our circadian rhythms, but disrupting or modifying one’s meal schedule can increase the risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.
In a circadian diet, people eat within a 12-hour window, between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m., and fast for the other 12 hours (including when they’re asleep). “In general, people with diabetes would benefit in improving blood glucose levels by keeping their mealtimes on a regular schedule and aiming to eat about the same amount of carbs at each meal,” Elizabeth Hanna, the American Diabetes Association’s director of nutrition, told HuffPost.
Some potential health benefits of eating breakfast on a regular circadian schedule include improved blood sugar control, lower inflammation levels, better blood pressure levels and healthier lipid levels.
“Eating breakfast can help people with diabetes more effectively keep their blood glucose balanced and prevent high blood glucose levels,” Hanna said. “Additionally, eating breakfast can aid weight management so long as total calories consumed for the day are not in excess.”
By contrast, skipping a morning meal affects blood sugar levels, explained Vandana Sheth, a spokesperson for the Association of Diabetes Care and Education Specialists. “Eating a balanced breakfast can help positively impact your insulin and blood sugar,” Sheth said. “You will have a more sustained level of energy.”
Generally, eating breakfast improves your energy levels and concentration, and can help reduce the risk of heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Eating breakfast also helps you maintain better eating habits than if you skip it. People who are more likely to skip breakfast include older women who are underweight or overweight, have a poor diet, engage in less physical activity, do not get enough sleep, are single parents or are from lower-income households. (Obviously, not all of these factors are always within a person’s control.)
Eat an early dinner
Compared to those who ate before 7 p.m., people in the study who ate dinner after 10 p.m. had an increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. Additionally, the number of times they ate in a day appeared to affect the level of risk. People who ate five or more times per day were associated with a lower disease incidence.
“Some studies have shown that glucose tolerance diminishes in the evening hours, for both healthy people and those with diabetes, supporting recommendations to eat more carbs at earlier meals like breakfast and fewer carbohydrates in the evening,” Hanna said.
Fasting between an early dinner and breakfast the next morning creates a metabolic shift when the liver converts fatty acids into ketones, which provide energy for tissues in the body. Additionally, cholesterol and insulin levels are lowered with time-restricted eating.
It’s important to visit your doctor if you’re specifically at risk for Type 2 diabetes ― a status shared by people over age 50, people with a family history of diabetes, people with high blood pressure or body mass index, and people who belong to certain racial or ethnic groups, Hanna said. Since diabetes affects people differently, relying solely on meal times is likely not the only preventive measure you should take.
“Because of individual differences in metabolism, not all people with diabetes may experience blood glucose balance as a result of eating breakfast regularly,” Hanna said. “A registered dietitian, nutritionist and certified diabetes care and education specialist can provide guidance on how to tailor meal planning strategies to address individual needs for the most effective blood glucose management.”