Why is breakfast different?

In principle, there should be no difference between what one eats at the three canonical meals of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. You should be able to easily switch the menus. But in actual practice, the interchangeability only applies to lunch and dinner, with the food eaten at breakfast being distinctively different from the other two meals.

Why is this? One reason is of course that, at least during the weekdays when people have to go to work and time is short, breakfast tends to be a quick meal or eaten on the run which severely restricts the choices. But apart from that, I don’t see any reason why what we eat at breakfast should be any different from what we eat for other meals.

In Sri Lanka, the difference was not so stark. While we would not normally eat rice at breakfast (though some families did), the curries and the starch staples that we had were mostly the same as those at other meals, except that there were fewer options and we ate less.

But in the US in particular, the breakfast menu tends to be quite different from the other two meals, with a much greater emphasis on sweet food. I have been to many breakfast meetings where the menu was largely Danishes, sweet rolls, and other gooey concoctions. If I am lucky they might be some bagels or croissants.

Breakfast is my favorite meal when I have the time to enjoy it. On occasion I join some friends for breakfast on a weekend and I almost invariably order the traditional western breakfast of eggs, toast, bacon, and coffee. On other occasions, I like coffee with croissants or crusty French bread or bagels. I have noticed recently the trend of some restaurants and diners offering ‘breakfast all day’ which is a good sign.

But still, why is breakfast different?


  1. Kengi says

    For me personally, I enjoy a big American “breakfast” style meal at all times of the day (the high protein version, not the high sugar version). From an anthropological view, this developed alongside a couple of different cultural trends in the Western world and America.

    Sweet meal items in general came along with the industrial revolution for several reasons. A high sugar meal gives a temporary energy boost, and tea with sugar and bread with treacle became a popular break-time snack for industrial workers.

    This was fueled by access to large amounts of sugar for the first time in history caused, in part, by the age of exploration. Nations needed a permanent presence on the lands they were claiming in the new world, and sugar, a remarkably expensive and rare commodity at the time, grew well in cane form in most of those new locations.

    Sugar plantations and refineries became a strategic resource for nations which fueled the people of the industrial revolution.

    In rural America, on the other hand, there was an abundance of land, which was good for raising pigs, cattle, and chickens. This made such foods readily available, and a high-protein breakfast was useful for long hours in the fields without a break (unlike the factory where you took tea-breaks).

    Today, the American high-sugar continental breakfast is the closest thing we have to tea time (from the civilized world).

  2. Mano Singham says

    Edward Bernays seems to be at the bottom of most things that are bad for you! If I recall correctly, he also promoted smoking to women by making it look daring and emancipating with his “You’ve come a long way, baby” ads for Virginia Slims cigarettes.

  3. Pen says

    In Europe for some reason, breakfast gets sweeter the further south you go. Although traditionally people used to eat bread and cheese or butter, I suspect. While in the north those big heavy breakfasts prepared you for a day of labour in the cold – if you could get one. Now office workers drug themselves awake on the fast hits of caffeine and sugars.

  4. Anniemouse says

    Breakfast is disappearing where I work. The horrendous rush-hour traffic means most people are on the road by 5 or 5:30 am, leaving scant time for a ‘complete healthy breakfast’ at home. Any five-minute delay (such as stopping at a fast-food place to pick up something) can put you a half-hour later for work, so most people drive directly there. My employer has a couple of microwaves, but the only sinks are in the (badly-maintained and unhygienic) bathrooms, so anything brought in has to be self-contained and not need cleaning up after.

    Most people just fast until lunch, or make do with something unhealthy like a cereal bar or candy bar, washed down with many cups of coffee.

  5. Jeffrey Johnson says

    There are two important differences about our bodies at breakfast time: it is usually the longest time we go without food before eating (hence the name break fast), and we usually eat it soon after sleeping.

    I don’t know enough about nutrition or biochem to say if or how these differences might account for why appetites at breakfast differ. But these two differences seem like they could provide a real biological basis for why our body might crave different foods in the morning.

  6. left0ver1under says

    Even as a kid, I found the idea of a mostly starchy breakfast counterproductive. After eight hours of not eating, and before the day’s work or school begins and there’s little chance to eat, the first meal is effectively only a grain product, or worse, sugars? And the largest meal is at the end of the day, when most people are sedentary?

    Eating sugary breakfasts is definitely a US (or mostly US) thing. I like most of the east Asian breakfasts – rice and fish in Japan, rice and kimchi in Korea, the Philippines, etc. Most of those I’ve seen in different countries are much healthier. The idea of “doughnuts for breakfast” just does not compute.

    A few years ago I consciously decided to “eat backwards” for fitness and health reasons – the largest meal in the morning (often fish/chicken, vegetables, rice/noodle/potato) and gradually smaller meals throughout the day. I end up less hungry and do more meal planning (more time to prepare at night), using less fat and oil in cooking. It also means less snacking on junk food, or making better choices if I do (i.e. no “sugar rush” from candy). And when working out, I’ve had my largest meal with the bulk of my calories many hours earlier, which means more endurance and no cramping. It’s been doubly positive on my health.

  7. badgersdaughter says

    My Irish husband introduced me to the notion of having a “fry up” every time the mood struck, which could be as early as cow-milking time and as late as last-call-at-the-pubs. To my objection of, “but… isn’t that breakfast?”, his reaction was “Yup. And lunch and dinner too, like.”

  8. bad Jim says

    Beer. It’s not just for breakfast any more.

    More seriously, it’s going to vary according to the schedule of your caloric needs throughout the day, the labor available to prepare it, and what you’ve consumed the night before. When I was young and biked to school or work I consumed a hearty breakfast, which could have been a fried feast of eggs and cheese or a hearty bowl of granola (we had different stuff back then). When I’ve been drinking wine all night and don’t need to exert myself, I don’t need a quick calorie pick-up in the morning.

    I grew up mostly eating cereal for breakfast, primarily as a result of lactase persistence and the success of the Seventh Day Adventists in promoting a diet of whole grains, and perhaps my mother’s disinclination to cook something different for everybody. Now I sometimes eat poached eggs with prosciutto and arugula for lunch, damned tasty if not especially filling.

  9. Nick Gotts says

    This was fueled by access to large amounts of sugar for the first time in history caused, in part, by the age of exploration.

    In this context, “age of the slave trade” would be more apposite. Work in the cane fields and refineries was among the most terrible the millions of slaves taken to the European colonies were forced to do – up there with silver mining. In the Caribbean and Brazil, mass slave revolts and escapes occurred, with some leading to the formation of autonomous communities of ex-slaves. Many radicals and humanitarians in Britain (probably elsewhere) boycotted slave-grown sugar – reputedly 400,000 were doing so in 1792.

  10. hyphenman says

    Good morning Mano,

    Breakfasts around the world have long fascinated me.

    You might find Jon Huck’s Breakfast Project interesting.

    Do all you can to make today a good day,

    Jeff Hess
    Have Coffee Will Write

  11. says

    My favorite breakfast is eggs, bacon, and fruit. But I also like the occasional doughnut or pastry. I think having something sweet in the morning rather than at night allows me to do more during the day to burn off a few of the extra calories. I think from a Dunkin’ Donuts maple glazed I just need to bench press eight city buses a few dozen times to burn the energy, but I take my coffee sans sugar, so I think that works out in the end.

  12. doublereed says

    America for Breakfast, France for Lunch, Take a Siesta in Spain, Dinner in Greece, and then finish up with some delightful Italian Desserts.

  13. petemoulton says

    Well, I’d go for breakfast in America and dessert in Italy, doublereed, but I’d want lunch in Mexico.

  14. Marshall says

    I’ve always suspected that it had something to do with levels of dehydration: most people sweat while asleep, and the early morning is when dehydration hits its peak.

    breakfast foods seem to me to be a bit less “dry”–eggs, bacon, yogurt, cereal with milk (to what other food do you have to add liquid to eat?). I supposed toast is a pretty big counter-argument here, but not only is it usually lathered in butter or jam, but why do we toast it? Toast absorbs significantly less water than fresh bread.

  15. MaryL says

    Our parents taught me, and my brother, that any food could be eaten at any meal. For instance, Dad often breakfasted on leftovers, unless Mom told him to leave it for the next day’s supper. I really enjoy certain soups for breakfast.

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