Forget What You Were Taught About Eating Breakfast

Photo (cc) by adactio

New scientific research is debunking experts’ long-held advice that skipping breakfast makes you fat. Researchers are finding not only that skipping breakfast does not contribute to obesity, but some say it may even help with weight loss.

Overall, breakfast’s role as the most important meal of the day is getting a serious rethink. The science isn’t conclusive either way yet. The bigger question of breakfast’s importance to health isn’t easy to answer. One study, for example, refutes breakfast’s role in weight gain but finds that it is connected to cholesterol control.

For healthy people, though, some experts are saying breakfast is “just another meal,” as one scientist puts it, and it’s OK to skip it if you wish.

Exception: kids and adults with health problems

Take note: These studies only looked at the effects of breakfast on healthy adults, not on children or people with medical conditions, including hypoglycemia or diabetes.

Reuters reports on the results of 2015 research at the University of Tel Aviv into breakfast skipping among people with type 2 diabetes. Researchers studied 12 men and 10 women who were 57, on average, and overweight:

The researchers had expected that skipping breakfast wouldn’t be healthy. But they were surprised at the extent to which glucose metabolism suffered, simply because participants hadn’t eaten breakfast, said lead author Daniela Jakubowicz of Tel Aviv University.

The researchers said they couldn’t know if healthy people would have a similar response.

Weaknesses in the studies

Warnings about skipping breakfast seem to be based on common sense. Eating after awakening is supposed to be the way to get energy for the day and ward off hunger. “Skipping breakfast is often a big no-no if you are trying to lose or maintain weight because it leads to high-calorie cravings later,” wrote WebMD in 2009, in Skip Breakfast, Get Fat, an article that typifies this advice.

The breakfast prescription even has government support. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy, say breakfast “has been associated with weight loss and weight loss maintenance, as well as improved nutrient intake.”

But this advice appears to be based in large part on observational studies, which cannot prove cause and effect, and not on controlled trials, which are the gold standard of scientific research. Because of this, it’s not clear that eating breakfast truly is the cause of the healthful effects it has been credited with, including lower body weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, Columbia University researchers write.

According to Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey:

S. Stanley Young, former director of bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, has estimated that for observational studies in the medical field, “over 90 percent of the claims fail to replicate” — that is they cannot be replicated later by more exacting experiments.

The Post says that University of Alabama-Birmingham professor David Allison examined five randomized controlled trials on breakfast but could not find clear evidence of a connection between breakfast and obesity.

A sixth study, published this month in Obesity, also showed no differences in weight loss between those who ate a breakfast and those who skipped, though subjects who had a high-protein breakfast gained less body fat.

Of the hype around breakfast, The Post concludes:

The trouble with all these pronouncements is, aside from raising doubts about the credibility of other dietary advice from the government, that they might actually cause people to eat breakfast when they otherwise wouldn’t, potentially leading to weight gain.

Here’s what three of the newer studies on breakfast and health say:

Columbia University: Weight lost, cholesterol gained

Researchers at Columbia University in New York in 2014 split 36 overweight women and men into three groups and had them eat either oatmeal, corn flakes or no breakfast for a month.

“Skipping breakfast leads to weight loss,” the researchers conclude, in a summary in the Journal of Nutritional Science. Breakfast-skippers lost an average of 2.6 pounds versus a 0.3-pound average loss for those on cornflakes. In bad news for oatmeal lovers, the subjects who ate oats gained weight — more than a half pound, on average.

Unfortunately, there’s more, though: Among the breakfast-skippers, cholesterol levels rose compared with the other groups of subjects.

“The breakfast type that produces the greatest health benefits remains unclear,” the Columbia researchers conclude.

University of Alabama: No effect on weight

This study followed about 300 volunteers who were otherwise healthy people who were overweight or obese as they ate breakfast daily, skipped it or just followed their normal patterns for four months. At the end, they had neither lost nor gained significant amounts of weight. The research was published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014.

Says Emily Dhurandhar, assistant professor of health behavior at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who led the study there, in a UofA news release:

“Now that we know the general recommendation of ‘eat breakfast every day’ has no differential impact on weight loss, we can move forward with studying other techniques for improved effectiveness,” Dhurandhar said. “We should try to understand why eating or skipping breakfast did not influence weight loss, despite evidence that breakfast may influence appetite and metabolism.”

Cornell University: A strategy for eating less

Authors of a randomized trial that was published in 2013 Physiology & Behavior say “skipping breakfast may be an effective means to reduce daily energy intake (calories) in some adults.”

College students who skipped breakfast did eat more — roughly 144 more calories — at lunch. But, overall, they ate around 450 fewer calories per day. The study’s senior author David Levitsky says in a news release:

I realize that skipping breakfast runs counter to common belief — that breakfast is an important meal for weight control, but the data do not support this view. Of course these results apply to healthy adults — if you’re diabetic or hypoglycemic, for example, you need to eat breakfast to maintain glucose levels. But, generally, we must learn to eat less and occasionally skipping breakfast may be a way to accomplish this.

No simple answers

Despite the newer studies showing that skipping breakfast does not appear to cause weight gain, the relationship between breakfast and weight loss isn’t at all settled. Take one other study that randomly assigned 93 obese women to two different weight-loss plans of 1,400 calories a day for 12 weeks. Here’s a summary of the study, led by Jakubowicz, the University of Tel Aviv researcher, on ResearchGate. One group ate the most calories — including cake and cookies — for breakfast. The other ate the heavier meal at the end of the day.

The outcome: Women in both groups lost weight. The women who ate a big dinner lost an average of 7.3 pounds and 1.4 inches off their waists. But the women who ate the big breakfast lost an average of 17.8 pounds and 3 inches off their waistline. What’s more, the big-breakfast group had higher levels of numerous healthy blood markers.

Many adults skip breakfast already

Given how complicated the relationship between breakfast and health is, it may take quite a while to get a definitive answer.

Meanwhile, most adults probably aren’t waiting for a final word from the labs. They’re just going their own way. Plenty, it appears, have been skipping breakfast all along, as this 2011 marketing research shows:

*Adults who skip breakfast
Men Women
18-34 28% 18%
35-54 18% 13%
55+ 11% 10%

Source: NDP Group marketing research

What’s your approach to breakfast? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click links within our stories.

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