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Eric Brown writes in How Marketing Created the Most Important Meal of the Day:

In 1944, a marketing campaign for Grape Nuts would be unleashed called “Eat a Good Breakfast — Do a Better Job”. During radio ads, it would be mentioned, “Nutrition experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” This marketing phrase became soaked into our lexicon ever since. As you can imagine, this made the cereal industry powerful, giving them a monopoly over breakfast.

Is the claim that this marketing campaign is central for the belief true? Did the belief not exist before 1944 and was common afterward?

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    This is not what your question is about but note that the last sentence of your quote 'this made the cereal industry powerful, giving them a monopoly over breakfast' is just blatantly wrong and does in no way follow from the previous sentences.
    – quarague
    Feb 1, 2023 at 8:58
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    "Expression" or "saying" seems like a far better descriptor for the saying than "meme". It's possible that there are some related memes, but "meme" is far more specific than just "a thing that people say".
    – NotThatGuy
    Feb 1, 2023 at 15:45
  • @Christian, also FYI you may know the one "eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper". (Which I thought was Ye Olde Times, but apparently is from 1800s USA.)
    – Fattie
    Feb 1, 2023 at 18:00
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    Christian: are you wondering when the idea, the meme arose, or are you asking about that exact expression of it? (As discussed, there are a number of similar phrases about the "same" idea.)
    – Fattie
    Feb 1, 2023 at 18:01
  • @NotThatGuy: An attempt to stop having the debate about memes again
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 1, 2023 at 21:45

4 Answers 4

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The expression predates that

These may not be the oldest examples (especially with so many variations of the expression), but these examples predate the radio entirely and even nearly predate Grape Nuts itself.

Saints Herald, 1887:

We commend the reading of the following; it contains a deal of good sense:
"EAT BEFORE YOU DRINK.
"A large proportion of intemperance in the use of stimulants," philosophized a physician, "may be laid to the light breakfasts eaten by most people. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and sufficient importance is not attached to it in the majority of households."

That was reprinted in Good Housekeeping, 1889.

Donahoe's Magazine, 1897:

The breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and the thought and care bestowed upon its preparation will do much to make the day happy.

But opinions at the time varied

Nobody has ever thought that lunch was important (except maybe the French). Dinner, on the other hand...

The Illustrated Oarsman's Manual (1874?) says

Dinner, whether taken in the middle of the day or late in the afternoon, is the most important meal of the day.

When did it become popular?

Google Ngrams shows that growth of the expression was exponential, but 1944 was on the long tail of that. It saw a slight boost in the 1970s and took off in the 1990s. I didn't have time to sift through all the timeframe, but a cursory glance shows that it's the motto of several breakfast companies, such as Ovaltine. Kellogg's went a step further and funded research so they could push that conclusion.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Skeptics Meta, or in Skeptics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Oddthinking
    Feb 5, 2023 at 1:59
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Even within just cereal ads, the exact phrase "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" was used earlier for shredded wheat, for example in the below ad from page 19 of the Evening Star 27 February 1922.

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I would argue that highlighting the importance of the breakfast meal is way older than what Laurel says. Since the question does not necessarily demand a science-based answer, I dare to quote some religious texts.

Based on the verse 19:62 of Quran (7th century CE):

They shall not hear therein any vain discourse, but only: Peace, and they shall have their sustenance therein morning and evening.

some commentators have speculated that breakfast and supper are the two most important meals, since God doesn't mention lunch. There are dozens of so-called hadiths that specifically recommend eating a proper breakfast. Such as this one from Ja'far al-Sadiq which roughly says:

After saying your morning prayers, bless yourself by eating some breakfast, because it cools you down and strengthens your teeth and jaws, and boosts your mood.

These kinds of hadiths along with some ancient books by the likes of Avicenna, are the basis of what is now called Islamic traditional medicine.

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    I don't know about OP, but I'm absolutely open to ancient and/or religious answers to this, but I don't think either quote you've provided clearly establishes breakfast as the most important meal of the day, unless something is lost in translation. The first seems to place the morning and evening meals on equal footing, and the second deems breakfast important without comparison to other meals. Feb 2, 2023 at 21:11
  • @called2voyage this needs some context that I wasn't sure how to provide. First, a significant amount of muslims believe that the Quran has all the answers to every problem and they try to project this belief by interpreting out of context verses of the holy book. So the interpretations of Quran become as important as the text itself. It may seem odd for an outsider, but any verse in its own vagueness may have some definitive consequences like the one I mentioned...
    – user36020
    Feb 3, 2023 at 0:05
  • Cont'd: for the Shiite community, this phenomenon is extrapolated to hadiths as well. So again, an outsider may find a hadith to be vague and non-definitive, but the clerics make definitive laws and decisions based on that. So when I say in Islamic traditional medicine the breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I mean something like this. Hope this clarifies some issues
    – user36020
    Feb 3, 2023 at 0:10
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    If the recommendation regarding the breakfast is contained in some hadiths or other interpretaions, can you reference and quote them directly? The answer as it is is interesting, but not specific enough about breakfast.
    – Suma
    Feb 3, 2023 at 10:03
  • @Suma this non-English article lists some verses and hadiths including the ones I mentioned. Also see this page if you are familiar with Arabic. No. 4902 is a hadith by the Prophet himself which roughly says eating breakfast increases your life expectancy.
    – user36020
    Feb 3, 2023 at 10:38
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From Poor Richards Almanack (Benjamin Franklin) in 1739,

Rather go to bed supperless, than run in debt for a Breakfast.

I think this conveys the same idea of breakfast being the most important meal. And it probably indicates that it was a bit of popular belief that's been restated in different ways over the years.

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    This is the wrong interpretation. "Better to go to bed supperless then [sic] to rise in debt" was a well known proverb before Franklin was even born with a straightforward meaning: make sacrifices today to avoid debt or it'll really suck in the future. He didn't change the meaning of the proverb (as he was anti-debt himself) but rather changed the wording a little.
    – Laurel
    Feb 3, 2023 at 16:10

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