Is Breakfast *Really* the Most Important Meal of the Day? Plus, 6 Other Questions We Asked a Food Therapist

Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal: white loving cup trophy filled with colorful fruit cereal featuring a milk splash on a pink background.
Juj Winn/Getty Images

At this point in 2023, we can all agree that therapy is a thing; an important thing that over the years has (thankfully) lost its stigma, supports our mental health and helps create a safe environment to navigate our relationships with others, and our relationship with ourselves. But what about our relationship with food? Enter Shira Barlow MS, RD, otherwise known as “The Food Therapist” and host of the daily podcast Good Instincts. She’s devoted her career to the subject, which is why we turned to her to answer some of your biggest questions about eating healthy—and having a healthy mindset toward food. Here’s what she had to say.

Dietician vs. Nutritionist: What’s the Difference and What Do They Do?

PureWow: OK, we have to ask, once and for all— is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

Shira Barlow: The thing about breakfast is that it is an important meal of the day. The most important? Not so much. If you’re doing it well with proteins and healthy fats, it can be a great way to stabilize blood sugar early. That being said, it really is a personal preference. There are some people who are not into breakfast, or don’t wake up hungry in the morning.

PW: What would you recommend to people who don't like breakfast foods (or don't like to eat in the morning)?

SB: In order for you to have healthy habits that are sustainable, they have to work for you. If you’re not someone who loves breakfast, that’s OK— but I would recommend ensuring that your first meal of the day is a combination of quality protein and healthy fats. I’m very into “non-breakfast foods” for breakfast. I love a sweet potato with almond butter or peanut butter drizzled on top. Chicken sausage in the air fryer is easy and so satiating.

I think what’s more important than the timing of your first meal, is the food that you’re putting into your body. Are you having some type of fat, protein, and complex carb that you really love and feel good about?

PW: That makes me wonder,  is there any truth to the (very ‘90s, might I add) concept that eating breakfast “kick-starts your metabolism?”

SB: Once you start eating, your metabolism starts going [faster, in an effort to digest food]. But the reality is, your metabolism never shuts off! It’s not like it stops working while you are sleeping. We have to look at these trends, whether it be eating breakfast first thing in the morning or intermittent fasting, through the lens of what feels good for us, personally.

PW:  Is 'calories in, calories out' a myth? If someone is looking to lose or maintain weight, should they try to eat the same (or fewer) calories than they're burning?

SB: So here’s the deal: Calories matter. That’s why programs like Weight Watchers work. On paper, it’s all based on calories in, calories out.

Of course, the type of calorie also matters; not just in terms of losing weight, but also in terms of how you’re feeling in your body. You could lose weight by eating a calorie deficit of candy—you will drop weight, yes, but your insides are not going to feel great and it’s not sustainable for long-term weight loss or maintenance.

TL;DR? Calories matter, but the type of macronutrient matters just as much, especially in the conversation around blood sugar. If you’re in a calorie deficit and prioritizing sugar and carbs, it’s going to spike your insulin levels, which impact your hormones, spark your hunger, etc.

It’s not that we shouldn’t have any carbs, ever—it’s that we have to be mindful of how carbs impact our insulin levels, and because of that, it helps to figure out what you want to choose when it comes to your macronutrients. In modern day, we have access to a variety of food choices, some healthier than others. It’s important to consider, intellectually, that we can choose what we want to eat. So if you're thinking about your macronutrient servings, why not play around with that? Some nights you might want to choose a sushi night out, or other nights it’s dessert and fruit throughout the day.

PW: Let's say you're feeling badly about yourself and your diet after a particularly indulgent day or weekend. How can you be kind to yourself while still attempting to get back on track?

SB: This is such a great question, because this is the food therapy piece. I think we all fear that if we are too kind to ourselves in those moments of overindulgence, that we can fall off the wagon or let ourselves go, when it is actually quite the opposite.

When we approach those times when we might not have acted in our own best interest with judgment and stress, and a “f*ck it” mentality, we never feel better afterwards. I call it the “eat, repent, repeat” cycle, and it impacts our physical health and our mental health as well.

When we are non-judgemental of ourselves and our choices, we can kindly say to ourselves, “hey, what happened there?” in a really curious way—thinking about if there were triggers leading up to an unhealthy choice, what happened in our environment during that time, or how we felt emotionally to start learning and recognizing our own health cues.

PW: When it comes to choosing a healthy lifestyle, would you say smaller, frequent meals throughout the day or three square meals are best? Although, I have a feeling I know what you’re going to say…that it depends on how we feel!

SB: You’re exactly right. It does depend on how you feel! The one thing I will say, is that I do think that snacking in general—especially when you’re a mom and you have a bunch of kids’ snacks in the house that you wouldn’t typically keep around otherwise—can lead to unhealthy choices.

Some people crave the proper meals three times a day, and others prefer to graze throughout the day (that’s me!), and both are healthy lifestyles. As a parent myself and more of a grazer, it’s important to be mindful of foods that are sneaking in while cooking dinner, or serving snacks to your kids. When you’re distracted and tired as a mom or not, my tip would be to graze mindfully!

If you have the foresight to plan ahead while cooking meals at home, I recommend putting together a plate of crudite, like carrots or bell pepper, to munch on so that you can snack throughout the process, and still have an appetite to sit at a meal with your loved ones or friends.

PW: Something that’s so trendy right now are supplements. Tell it to us straight: Are supplements necessary to overall health, or is it better to eat whole foods that provide the same nutrients?

SB: When it comes to supplements, it’s the wild west out there. Because most supplements aren’t governed by the FDA, they also aren’t required to share everything that’s in them.

When shopping for supplements, the first and most important thing to look for is where it’s coming from, where it’s sourced. Are they from a reputable place? I think generally speaking, vitamin D and vitamin K are amazing. Most of us can benefit from vitamin D.

Also, a probiotic. I am a huge advocate for gut health, and aside from supplements, there is so much you can do with fermented foods and the good culture cottage cheese and tons of foods that have natural probiotic impact. The reason I’m such a fan of probiotic supplements though, is because the sheer amount and diversity of the strains of bacteria that you have in your gut really makes a difference for the overall health of your microbiome. What happens behind the scenes, is that your gut lining risks being permeated with the impact of lifestyle triggers like stress, and added sugar and antibiotics.

Picture your gut lining to be the same texture as the inside of your mouth…super delicate! When the “net” gets irritated, we start to experience things like changes in our skin, bloating and inflammation that we can’t really put our finger on. I’m a big believer that overall health begins in the gut, so things you can do to support gut health like taking an amazing probiotic. I love Seed, and also Renew Life.

PW: *Adds to cart immediately.*

purewow author

Freelance PureWow Editor