EAn observation: For breakfast there are rolls with jam or bread with cheese or sausage. Or muesli or oatmeal. Or boiled eggs or fried eggs. And the next day, as if it were normal, there is the same thing, bread or egg or muesli, and then again and again.

Often all parameters have to be adhered to meticulously. For example, boil the egg for five minutes, but not four or six minutes. Or first put jam on the bread roll and then cheese and never Orange marmalade. Or smoked ham, but no other sausage. And if the order gets mixed up, it can ruin half the day. Isn’t that strange, completely contrary to our eating habits?

Just imagine if we had pasta or potatoes every day for lunch or dinner. After three days we would be bored, after four we would be suspicious, after five we would be fed up with the meal and at least grumpy. Food should be varied, original, and should only be repeated at appropriate intervals. Variation is a habit. But in the morning it is completely different. What we accept at breakfast, even make a condition, is frowned upon at other times of day. Why?

This eating habit has hardly been recorded in the extensive nutritional research to date. Several factors certainly play a role: physiological, psychological, cultural. “Breakfast is less social than lunch, for example,” says Gunther Hirschfelder, a cultural nutrition researcher at the University of Regensburg. It leads to individual behavior, especially since the number of singles is increasing.

A greater routine is required in the morning because time is short. That is why breakfast traditionally has more cold components and fewer warm components. “And we are more stressed in the morning. Stress always leads to us developing eating routines.” The day brings appointments, tasks, and imponderables. Rituals create order, and eating and drinking produces emotional security, says Hirschfelder. There is satisfaction in repeating the ritual: every piece of Nutella bread and every portion of oatmeal is a devotion.

Source: Getty; Infographic WELT

People therefore eat conservatively in the morning rather than progressively, sometimes sticking to the habits they learned from their parents as children. Despite all the other joys of experimenting with food, practically no breakfast habits are adopted from other cultures. Hardly anyone in this country would try to eat soup in the morning on a permanent basis, as is the case in Asian countries – even though Asian soups are considered hip and healthy at other times of the day.

Evidence for the ritualization theory: As soon as there is more time, the social function and also the food changes. At the weekend, families, couples and singles celebrate the big breakfast. Then there is a wide range of options, the stove is used to prepare Ottolenghi’s scrambled eggs or American buttermilk pancakes. When guests come for brunch, there is also an originality staged – just away from the routine.

Hirschfelder calls this “status representation through eventization.” What is normal in the evening is only practiced as an exception in the morning.

“Overweight people leave the house without breakfast”

Doctor and nutrition expert Daniela Kielkowski has a clear opinion on the “perfect” breakfast.

Source: WELT / Kevin Knauer

Of course, morning mania is not unchangeable. Many people change the rules after a while, eating porridge instead of bread or fruit smoothies instead of boiled eggs. But the cycles are surprisingly long, compared to the other variations in food. People regularly return to their original habits and enjoy it. The old patterns bring back positive memories and promise security.

But morning nutrition can also be explained by the body’s needs. “In the morning, the stress hormone cortisol from the adrenal gland is at its highest; you need that to wake up and get going,” says Kerstin Oltmanns, Professor of Psychoneurobiology at the University of Lübeck. The doctor also points to the calming, stress-reducing effect of always doing the same routine. Eating in the morning is more influenced by a lack of energy than at other meals.

You fast overnight, and your body needs energy that is readily available. What works best is sugar, which goes straight into the blood, and high-calorie fat, says Oltmanns. Sugar has also been proven to lower cortisol levels. That’s why you tend to eat jam rolls, chocolate croissants and muesli with honey in the morning. Other foods, especially proteins – found in pulses, for example – have to be broken down first, which takes time.

Source: Getty; Infographic WELT

Metabolism is also different than at other times of the day. What is consumed at breakfast is very strongly channeled into the cells. A 2020 study at the University of Lübeck showed that the same food is processed differently by the body in the morning than in the evening. Test subjects were given lavish or low-calorie meals at different times of the day. Blood values ​​were then determined. Blood sugar and insulin levels rose significantly less after breakfast than after dinner, regardless of what was eaten. The body therefore burns significantly more calories in the morning than at other times of the day.

In relation to breakfast habits, this means that because the body has a high energy requirement in the morning, the choice of food is limited. Eating the same thing is sufficient. At lunchtime or in the evening, however, the body is already satisfied with its immediate needs, even though it is hungry. It is now ready for as much variety as possible in its food, and the intake of a wide variety of products and substances is desirable. This leads to the need for variety.

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“If you eat a lot for breakfast, you’re less hungry in the afternoon or evening,” says Oltmanns. If you eat little for breakfast, you get cravings and your appetite for sweets increases throughout the day. So it makes sense to eat breakfast to lose weight, and not skip a meal. All the snack boxes in offices are a reaction to the increasing number of people who are doing interval fasters or skipping breakfast, and an indication of increased stress levels among employees.

Oltmanns also works with overweight people. She is skeptical about the trend towards intermittent fasting to lose weight. Data shows that it does not lead to weight loss in the long term. Enforced rules are often not maintained in the long term. In fact, she says, the things that work best for breakfast are the things you like to eat.

A fixed daily routine and rituals

In evolutionary terms, breakfast is a response to the body’s needs. But it is not absolutely necessary to eat first thing in the morning; it is relatively easy to skip it. Paleoanthropologists have found no clear evidence that early humans ate in the morning. Perhaps they had to search for food or hunt first after waking up.

“We know next to nothing about the meal chronology of the long Stone Age,” says Gunther Hirschfelder. With the settlement of people around 10,000 years ago and the beginning of agriculture and animal husbandry, a chronology began to emerge, and the day took on a sequence. The first evidence of breakfast comes from classical Egypt; the so-called mouthwash was a morning meal. “All pre-modern societies up to the 19th century and in rural areas up to 1930 are completely chronological and ritualized,” says Hirschfelder. The daily routine shaped life.

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Close up of female hands holding two fresh soft white bread rolls with flour powdering and shallow focus.

For a long time in Central Europe, porridge and puree were common in the morning, sometimes with animal fats, lard or goose meat. Bread was more difficult to make and was considered more refined. Until recently, eating habits and food offerings were not questioned. The change is also due to the greatly increased variety: if you have avocados, for example, you can leave out cold cuts.

Only in the last few decades have individualization and dietary restrictions led to changes. Ritualized breakfast habits now include avoiding meat or animal products, avoiding sugar, and avoiding breakfast altogether. The result is continued repetition. This creates the good feeling of doing the right thing.

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Psychologist and neuroscientist Soyoung Park from the German Institute of Human Nutrition in Potsdam studies decision-making. In 2017, Park was involved in two breakfast studies in which test subjects were confronted with unfair offers after breakfast; the aim was to split sums of money in a game for two people. Those who had eaten more carbohydrates were more likely to reject the unfair offers. Those who had eaten more protein for breakfast, on the other hand, were more willing to accept the offer.

Conclusion: Food influences the neurotransmitters available in the brain and can shape decisions. This is especially true when the diet is always the same, like in the morning.

One final influence of breakfast conservatism on the day: Psychologists have studied so-called decision fatigue, which has been proven to decrease over the course of the day. Kerstin Oltmanns points out how difficult it would be if you had to think about what to do every day when you got up, shower or wash, coffee first, then brush your teeth or vice versa? And which breakfast?

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As US President, Barack Obama explained his morning habits as follows: “I don’t want to make decisions about what I eat or what I wear. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Someone who appreciates their same breakfast every day won’t necessarily become president, but they will be prepared to make more decisions throughout the day.

Apparently, the White House first had 45 minutes of exercise, then eggs, potatoes, toast and no coffee.

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This article was first published in July 2021.