Why Breakfast Might Not Be The Most Important Meal of The Day

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I have a theory about breakfast. It’s something I’ve been thinking for quite some time now – and it’s this, I eat less throughout the day when I skip breakfast than if I eat it. It’s like it just dampens down my need for food for the whole day. I’m therefore thinking that I should stop eating it on days where I don’t wake up hungry.

Fried breakfast of sausages, eggs, beans tomato

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‘Quelle horreur Helen’, you might be saying ‘do you want to get fat?’

After all, we have it drummed into us that breakfast is THE most important meal of the day.

Surely without it, our metabolisms fail and we’ll all be mugging old ladies for croissants come 11am.

Well, my argument for this was always – as I DON’T reach for the pastries come 11am, surely skipping breakfast is good for me? Surely the number of calories I, therefore, miss out on by not consuming it puts me in better stead for losing weight? – well unless my metabolism does go into free fall of course.

So, Is Breakfast Important or Not?

I was curious about this and so I put the question to nutritionist Amanda Hamilton recently for a piece I was writing and she said…

The “breakfast boosts metabolism” myth is based on the ‘thermic effect of food’.  Around 10% of our calorie burn comes from the energy that we use to digest, absorb and assimilate the nutrients in our meals. Roughly speaking, eat a 350-calorie breakfast and you will burn 35 calories in the process. But notice that you’ve eaten 350 extra calories to burn that 35 – a net gain of 315 calories. No matter what time of day you eat at, you’ll burn off around 10% of the calories in your food through the thermic effect of food. So, whether you eat your breakfast at 7am, 10am or never, if you eat roughly the same amount and types of food overall, its effect on your metabolism will be the same.

In fact, in a small study on breakfast-eaters – published in the British Journal of Nutrition – in a 700 calorie breakfast inhibited the use of fat for fuel throughout the day.  Put simply, when we eat carbohydrate, we use it for fuel, and this stops our bodies from tapping into our stubborn stored fat. Constant grazing might be what’s keeping fat locked away in your belly, bum or thighs.

My advice is to watch the clock, not the calories. Try fasting some mornings until noon. This is an intermittent fasting method known 16/8 method (rather than 5:2) and I find it one of the best ways to release stubborn fat.

Now – I’m updating this post in 2020, when the idea of intermittent fasting is not unusual but back in 2013 when I originally wrote this the concept was seriously revolutionary – but the studies kept coming…

Bowl of Muesli on a table with fruit and milk

And about the time I wrote the piece, one large study from the US  looked at exactly what evidence there is out that there that skipping breakfast really did stop people losing weight (or vice versa).

It analysed the studies done on the idea and basically found something interesting.

No-one has really proved that eating breakfast makes you thinner – in fact, in the abstract of the study the authors say ‘The belief in the PEBO (proposed effect of breakfast on obesity) exceeds the strength of scientific evidence.’ That’s right, they directly stated that one of the most commonly held beliefs about what we should eat hasn’t actually been proven.

In fact, trials have shown that breakfast skippers made to eat breakfast lose weight; conversely, breakfast eaters made to cut out breakfast lose weight too.

They have found that yes, people skipping breakfast often eat a bigger lunch but the calories they consume don’t usually exceed those they would have taken in eating breakfast.

However…

Other studies have found breakfast to be important It showed that people eating 700 calorie breakfasts lose weight just fine thanks.

In fact, when I interviewed Dr Michael Gregor, author of the excellent, meticulously researched book (How Not To Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss recently he was very much behind the concept that breakfast could be good saying that studies show calories eaten in the morning causes you to accumulate less body fat than the exact same number of calories eaten at night. He talked about a study of women eating a 1400 calorie a day diet that found those who ate a 700 calorie breakfast, a 500 calorie lunch and a 200 calorie dinner lost twice as much weight and 5cm more from their waist, than a group eating the large meal at dinner.  It seems our body uses more energy burning calories in the AM creating a bigger deficit at the end of the day.

There was even one piece of research from Tel Aviv that showed eating cake first thing made you thin!

In other words, looking at the research as to whether breakfast is important, no-one actually knows what role eating breakfast conclusively plays in weight.

That’s right, there’s no guaranteed metabolic free fall that leads to extra pounds. No across-the-board croissant binges cancelling everything out. And no conclusive proof that eating breakfast makes you thin – or fat.

So, Breakfast Yes – or No?

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should give up breakfast – remember,  I just write a blog, I don’t have a science degree – just spend my days speaking to people who do!

The fact is, breakfast has a lot of benefits other than whether it affects weight or not.

Often breakfast is the only time many people consume a decent whack of dairy in a day; it’s a good chance to pop in a portion of fruit or two, and if you eat carbs, it gives a decent dose of B vitamins that you’ll need to make up somewhere else in your day.

If you scan down to the comments below, you’ll also see a fantastic case for why eating breakfast is important for health – showing research indicating it might play a role in reducing risk of heart disease and potentially play a role in insulin resistance.

But when it comes to whether or not it impacts on your weight, it seems that what the conflicting trials do seem to prove is that bodies are completely individual – and that’s possibly how we should take the breakfast rule too.

As an individual.

If you wake up starving and can’t focus without food until lunch then chances are that yes, you are better off eating something healthy at home than descending into a chocolate binge come 11am.

But note – healthy is the keyword there. One reason why breakfast leaves many people hungry is that many cereals are full of sugar and fry ups are not the best start to every day!  A healthy breakfast mixes low GI carbs, low fat protein and some kind of fruit – or even vegetables (check out this post on savoury porridge for some ideas on that).

But if you’re like me and don’t always wake up hungry – and if you do skip breakfast don’t reach for extra food (and in fact seemingly eat less throughout the day) then maybe you don’t need it.

Further Reading

If you want to read more about the science of intermittent fasting, check out these books…

Written by Amanda who I talked to for this piece, it was one of the first books looking into the science of fasting in the UK. Click here to see more about it.

Packed with science and research led fact, this gives you a clear plan to follow and the reasons why it will work to keep you motivated. Click here to check out The 8-Hour Diet.

By the author of the incredibly popular 5:2 this plan explores the concept of very low calorie eating – and intermittent fasting – every day. Click here to see more.

Main images: freedigitalphotos.net

10 thoughts on “Why Breakfast Might Not Be The Most Important Meal of The Day”

  1. I agree Helen. I’ve tried Amanda’s 16/8 fasting diet (aka skipping breakfast). And contrary to what we’ve been told for decades about just how dangerous this is and how it will turn you into a crazed, junk-food-inhaling monster, I find it’s actually perfectly OK. I do feel hungry by lunchtime, and I really enjoy my lunch, but that’s it. On the plus side, I seem to have more energy in the mornings when I don’t eat breakfast. And let’s face it, breakfast is probably the most boring meal of the day – skipping porridge a couple of times a week is no big hardship……

    Reply
    • • Original Article
      o Epidemiology and Prevention
      Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male US Health Professionals
      1. Leah E. Cahill, PhD;
      2. Stephanie E. Chiuve, ScD;
      3. Rania A. Mekary, PhD;
      4. Majken K. Jensen, PhD;
      5. Alan J. Flint, MD, DrPh;
      6. Frank B. Hu, MD, PhD;
      7. Eric B. Rimm, ScD
      + Author Affiliations
      1. From the Departments of Nutrition (L.E.C., S.E.C., R.A.M., M.K.J., A.J.F., F.B.H., E.B.R.) and Epidemiology (F.B.H., E.B.R.), Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA; and Division of Preventive Medicine (S.E.C.) and Channing Division of Network Medicine (F.B.H., E.B.R.), Department of Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA.
      1. Correspondence to Leah E. Cahill, PhD, Harvard School of Public Health, 655 Huntington Ave, Bldg II, Room 349, Boston, MA 02115. E-mail lcahill@hsph.harvard.edu
      Abstract
      Background—Among adults, skipping meals is associated with excess body weight, hypertension, insulin resistance, and elevated fasting lipid concentrations. However, it remains unknown whether specific eating habits regardless of dietary composition influence coronary heart disease (CHD) risk. The objective of this study was to prospectively examine eating habits and risk of CHD.
      Methods and Results—Eating habits, including breakfast eating, were assessed in 1992 in 26 902 American men 45 to 82 years of age from the Health Professionals Follow-up Study who were free of cardiovascular disease and cancer. During 16 years of follow-up, 1527 incident CHD cases were diagnosed. Cox proportional hazards models were used to estimate relative risks and 95% confidence intervals for CHD, adjusted for demographic, diet, lifestyle, and other CHD risk factors. Men who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of CHD compared with men who did not (relative risk, 1.27; 95% confidence interval, 1.06–1.53). Compared with men who did not eat late at night, those who ate late at night had a 55% higher CHD risk (relative risk, 1.55; 95% confidence interval, 1.05–2.29). These associations were mediated by body mass index, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and diabetes mellitus. No association was observed between eating frequency (times per day) and risk of CHD.
      Conclusions—Eating breakfast was associated with significantly lower CHD risk in this cohort of male health professionals.
      Key Words:
      • coronary disease
      • epidemiology
      • myocardial infarction
      • nutritional sciences
      • prevention & control
      • Received September 20, 2012.
      • Accepted May 23, 2013.
      • © 2013 American Heart Association, Inc.

      Dr. Gabe Mirkin’s Fitness and Health E-Zine

      Skipping Breakfast Increases Diabetes and Obesity Risks

      June 30, 2013

      Compared to those who eat breakfast up to three times a week, those who eat breakfast every day gained 4.2 pounds less weight over 18 years, and were less likely to suffer diabetes, abdominal obesity, obesity, metabolic syndrome, and high blood pressure (Diabetes Care, published online June 17, 2013).

      People who skip breakfast:
      • have higher body fat, particularly belly fat, a major risk factor for diabetes and heart attacks (PLoS One, published online Mar 8, 2013;8(3).
      • suffer increased diabetes risk; the fatter they are, the more likely they are to suffer diabetes (Am J Clin Nutr, published online June 12, 2013).
      • are far less active throughout the day and eat more fat (J Am Diet Assoc, 2005 Sep;105(9):1373-82).

      Definition of Insulin Resistance
      Sugar cannot enter a cell, unless insulin is there to drive sugar into that cell. (The exception is that contracting muscles can draw sugar from the bloodstream without insulin). Before insulin can do its job of driving sugar into cells, it must first attach on specific hooks, called insulin receptors on the surface of cells. Anything that prevents insulin from attaching to its receptors will prevent insulin from doing its job of driving sugar into cells. Insulin resistance occurs when insulin cannot attach to its receptors. Then blood sugar levels rise to high levels that can damage every cell in the body. The vast majority of cases of diabetes occur when insulin cannot attach onto its receptors.

      Also, high blood sugar levels cause the pancreas to release even more insulin and blood insulin levels rise higher and higher. High levels of insulin constrict arteries leading to the heart which can cause heart attacks.

      Skipping Breakfast Causes Temporary Insulin Resistance
      A paper presented at the annual meeting of The Endocrine Society (June 18, 2013) shows that overweight women are far more likely to develop insulin resistance several hours after they skip breakfast. Blood samples from overweight women who skipped breakfast had higher insulin and blood sugar levels after eating lunch, compared with the women who ate breakfast. This is a sign of temporary insulin resistance. The higher levels of insulin caused by skipping breakfast cause:
      • increased hunger to make you eat more
      • increased body weight
      • higher blood sugar levels that damage cells and cause diabetes
      • big fat bellies because high insulin levels cause fat to be deposited in the belly.

      What You Should Eat for Breakfast
      A healthful breakfast does NOT include many of the traditional breakfast foods. Avoid sugar-added drinks and foods; eat whole fruits instead of drinking fruit juices. Avoid processed meats such as bacon, ham or sausage, and other meat from mammals. Avoid fried foods and foods made with highly-processed grains such as pancakes, waffles or French toast, and many types of breakfast cereal. Oatmeal and other breakfast cereals made with whole grains, with no added sugars, rarely cause a high rise in blood sugar.

      Reply
      • Thanks for posting. I was aware of the Harvard study but was mostly talking about weight hence my not including it. As I said when I asked you to repost though it’s good to give people knowledge so they can make their own choices as to what suits their body. I know what I think suits mine.

  2. Helen, I’m so glad you’ve ‘come out’ about not eating breakfast. I too find that if I conform to eating ‘the most important meal of the day’ I’m like a ravenous lunatic by 11am. I don’t eat breakfast because I’m not hungry in the mornings. I can happily go through to 11 or 12 and then have a piece of fruit before having a sensible lunch. Most days I can happily get through until later in the day if I’m occupied but if I’m exercising (well dog walking) I’ll always eat a good lunch. And I agree with Sally, breakfast isn’t so exciting but I sometimes find I’ll have cereal or porridge at lunchtime with fruit when I’m ready for it (i’m not a morning person full stop!) and then eat what I like in the evenings. At weekends I try not to clock watch and just feed children and us when we are actually hungry. I just don’t think we necessarily need 3 meals a day always, and thinking ‘am I hungry’ first is a really sensible way to eat. Usually the answer is ‘no I’m not starving’ so we can wait another 30 mins or another hour. So, I’ll get up tomorrow morning feeling happier now I’ve found some non-breakfast eating allies!

    Reply
  3. This is really interesting and I’d not heard of the 16:8 method… quite tempted by the book! But I remember when I was reading around the topic of intermittent fasting and 5:2 method that a few articles and I’m pretty sure one or two academic papers hinted at less positive effects for women over men when adopting fasting (this was months ago, so no links – sorry). Do you think this applies for 16:8 too?

    Reply
    • I’m not a nutritionist so can’t say for sure, but here’s my take on things. You’re right some negative impact has been shown for alternate day fasting in women, in terms of fertility but also in terms of things like blood sugar reactions – of course there’s a lot of negative impact of being overweight in regard to fertility too so my personal feeling is it’s swings and roundabouts on that one. My basic understanding is that 16:8 is believed to be less stressful for the body as you’re not dramatically restricting calories on any one day – as much as anything you’re merely reducing eating opportunities, which naturally cuts down how many calories you consume (as any calorie controlled diet would do). This means it can’t completely be compared to regimes where calories are dramatically reduced like Alternate Day Fasting which is where the main research has been carried out. In fact, as the website healthista.com pointed out in a bit of a scoop recently, Varady, the main researcher into ADF has asked the authors of the Fast Diet to remove references to her work in relation to 5:2 as she doesn’t believe her work can be applied to any other regime. The same could therefore be said of any negative impacts – what happens to the body on ADF may not happen on 16:8. We just don’t really know yet. I will ask Amanda for her opinion though and see what she says. I’ll get back to you ASAP.

      Reply
  4. You have hot the zeitgeist again, Helen! Read what John Briffa says here http://www.drbriffa.com/2013/10/04/a-reader-writes-is-breakfast-really-the-most-important-meal-of-the-day/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+drbriffa%2FsOZf+%28Dr+Briffa%27s+Blog+-+A+Good+Look+at+Good+Health%29

    Personally, I do not find that I miss breakfast on my fasting days and a lot of it is habitual. Also, once I’ve had something to tickle my tastebuds, eg a yogurt and banana, I find I am more likely to want toast too…

    John Briffa finds that people who skip breakfast consume an average of 400 fewer calories a day.

    Reply
  5. My experience is as follows: While I’m not advocating that children, adolescents or teens skip breakfast, I can relate my own long-term weight-loss success story, as someone who doesn’t eat – break fast, as it were – until much later in the day. Yes, that flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but this notion of “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” has been repeated so much that many don’t question whether that’s right for them personally. And most people fail rather than succeed at long-term weight loss.

    I practice what’s known as “intermittent fasting.” It’s easy to research online, and there are variations on it (mine is what might be called intermittent feeding). It works GANGBUSTERS, and it never feels like I’m “on a diet,” I’ll include links to my own before and after pics, then a good, comprehensive article to expand on my anecdotal experience.

    My approach isn’t for everyone (as documented with children), but I highly recommend those that have been on the endless”diet go-round” consider it.

    Before & After pics:

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10151311850825988&set=pb.521610987.-2207520000.1380574927.&type=3&theater

    Article by Dr. John Berardi:

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/john-berardi-phd/breakfast-health_b_4436439.html

    Reply

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