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04/23/19

What Do You Need To Know About Breakfast And Weight Loss?

Intermittent fasting. Training low. Jump-starting your metabolism. Grazing.

All of the above are popular terms that are currently being thrown around in the nutrition world. It seems like no matter where you turn, people are using all kinds of different buzz words, new phrases, and fancy-sounding strategies. Maybe it’s the magazine in the checkout line at the grocery store or a friend of yours who just recently lost some weight and wants to tell the world about what worked for them. There’s no denying that those terms might sound cool, but there’s also no denying that they add to the confusion about how we are supposed to eat.

See, one of the things that can typically be seen with lots of buzzwords and phrases is that these terms are less concerned about the what and how much you should eat but all specifically refer to advice about WHEN and HOW OFTEN you should be eating for specific results, primarily with weight loss as the goal. If you’ve got any experience in tracking your food or working at a weight loss goal, you know there is a very big difference there.

Recently the most hotly debated meal of the moment is breakfast. Which is the most important meal of the day, right? We were all raised being told to eat a good breakfast. We’ve all heard that breakfast helps us get through the day, can play a role in helping us lose weight, will help us perform better in the gym, and more.

But how exactly does breakfast impact weight loss? Is it something that we have to eat in order to lose weight? And can there actually be merit to those people who like to skip breakfast every single day?

Well, as with all good nutrition questions, this one is best answered with the slightly infuriating but most appropriately correct answer of “well, it depends.” And this answer gets even more complex when you examine it specifically from the standpoint of what effect eating breakfast has on your weight.

To answer this question let’s dive into the research. Most of the previous research examining breakfast and weight has been observational research, the majority of which have found that people who regularly skip breakfast also tend to have a higher weight and gain more weight over time. This would tell us that eating breakfast is clearly the best option and is important for maintaining a healthy weight.

There are great hypotheses for why this may be the case too. Some research suggests that people who skip breakfast may overeat later on in the day because they allow themselves to get too hungry and others have found that food intake tends to feel more filling earlier in the day so eating earlier on will help you feel more satisfied and eat less over the day.  The issue with observational research, however, is that participants are simply asked to report data about their current or previous habits. This leaves a lot of room for error and we know for a fact the humans are not very good at remembering and reporting accurate details about things like their food intake and exercise (not to mention that many tend to report that they weigh less and are taller than they actually are). So while this type of research is a great way to first look at relationships between two different things it’s really tough to know if one variable causes the other or if the relationship is even real at all. In the case of eating breakfast, it turns out that when we examine this relationship more closely and in a better-controlled laboratory and experimental type research settings it turns out we may be better off skipping breakfast to help control our weight…what?!

A recently published review study summarized 13 different experimental research studies that examined the effect of eating breakfast on overall energy intake and/or weight.  The overall findings showed that participants assigned to skip breakfast actually ate fewer calories per day and had slightly reduced weight.  

How do the authors explain the differences in their results compared to the previous observational research? One thing they noted was that when you look deeper into the observational studies, you find that people who tend to eat breakfast also tend to have other qualities associated with a healthier lifestyle. Variables such as being more health conscious and coming from a higher socioeconomic status were also more common for people who ate breakfast. Maybe the link between breakfast and weight has nothing to do with breakfast itself but instead the types of people who tend to eat it.

Here we go again! Another topic within the field of nutrition where one day we are told to do this and then the next day we are told to do the exact opposite. I mean at this point I still don’t even know if I’m supposed to be eating eggs or drinking coffee but I regularly do both…and you will NEVER steal my coffee from me! But, back to the topic of breakfast.

So if you are someone who wants to lose some weight, do you eat breakfast or not? Let’s discuss.

While weight loss can be considered complex and the nuances and habits associated with it can be, overall at its core weight loss comes down to eating fewer calories than your body burns over an extended time period (a negative energy balance). Specific to weight loss, how someone chooses to eat less calories is much less important than the simple fact that they are following a plan that has them eating less calories.  

We might want to reiterate that point just so we’re all on the same page. How exactly someone decides to get into a calorie deficit is far less important to weight loss than the fact that they get into a calorie deficit on a daily basis. When it comes to actual weight loss, this is by far and away the most important point any of us can ever recognize.

This means that for you, if skipping breakfast allows you to eat fewer calories per day and you are trying to lose weight, then you should probably skip breakfast. In fact, more and more recent research is supporting this stance. A study I completed with my colleagues in a University research lab confirmed these findings as well. We measured how much the participants ate when they either did or did not consume breakfast before an hour long running session on a treadmill. Everything else between the two groups was exactly the same, except whether or not they ate breakfast. We found that on the days the participants ate breakfast, they ate more overall calories that day. Which, just kind of makes sense, right? You eat one extra meal, you eat more calories. What was interesting is that when the participants ate breakfast, they also ate more later on in the day too! So, there’s something else going on there as well that might make this a great option for you.  

But, if you are someone like me that if I try to skip breakfast, I end up getting so hungry and I can’t quench that hungry no matter what I eat the rest of the day (I did try Intermittent Fasting for 5 whole days and it was NOT a fit for me!), skipping breakfast is probably not the best option for you.

Above all else, remember that the world of nutrition and weight loss is highly nuanced and can be considered very complex. There are a number of factors that go into weight loss for each and every single person. Things like hunger, how we deal with hunger, what allows us to eat in a way that supports our goals and also fits within the context of our daily life. Breakfast can certainly be a part of that for plenty of people, just the same way that skipping breakfast can be a part of that for others.

Dr. Jessica Bachman
Director of Nutritional Education