The Sunny Side of Breakfast: Why Some Meals Stay the Same

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Why should lunch and dinner vary, but breakfast can be more or less the same every day?

A paper published in the journal Appetite this month, by researchers Romain Cadario of Erasmus University Rotterdam and Carey K Morewedge of Boston University, examined the food diaries kept by 4,000 people in the United States and in France, and found that 68% ate the same foods for breakfast at least twice a week (a repeat rate of about 29%), but dinner was only repeated about 9% of the time.

The reason, according to their research, has to do with the goals associated with each meal of the day. The goals humans set around food tend to fall into one of two categories: utilitarian (practical) or hedonic (pleasure-seeking).


Logic would dictate that since mornings are a rush time and a crucial planning phase for the day, breakfast becomes utilitarian by default. Modern work practices mean that most people also have less time for that meal. Keeping it uniform then becomes an effective way to spend as little time as possible on it.

Morewedge and Cadario’s research, however, suggests things may well be the other way around. “The different goals we pursue in our meals are not due to the different amounts of time available to prepare and eat our meals. Rather, we find that the time we spend eating seems to be determined by the goals we pursue, not the other way around,” the document states.


Where do these goals come from then? The results suggest that part of the answer is biological and part cultural. Biologically, we are more stimulated in the morning, which can reduce our need for elaborate meals. At night, on the other hand, we are less stimulated and need external reinforcements.

Cultural factors would include habits formed in childhood and things like advertising. Most ads reinforce the idea that breakfasts are rushed and should be high in energy but healthy (even though packaged foods sold as breakfasts usually aren’t); while dinner parties, for example, are advertised as quiet, often social events that should be relatively forgiving.

The good news is that this information can be used to help you eat healthier.

Just as hedonic goals can potentially influence a person to choose greedy foods for dinner, an individual (once they understand the patterns that lead them to choose) can use utilitarian goals to choose healthier foods for breakfast, Morewedge and Cadario suggest in their article.

Prepare an effective and fulfilling breakfast from healthy foods that one might be less likely to choose for dinner, such as kale or spinach. Repeat this breakfast often enough, and healthy eating becomes a habit; one that’s far more likely to stick than a kale or spinach lunch habit.

It also means that you can enjoy dinner with a clear conscience. In fact, according to the researchers, if one uses breakfast wisely, it is recommended to indulge a little at dinner. It adds the kind of variety that could make healthy breakfasts even more sustainable.


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