Breakfast is often referred to as “the most important meal of the day,” and most nutritional experts say skipping it is a bad idea.
We’ve been told we’re more likely to gain weight or become obese if we skip breakfast, and a quarter of Americans say they don’t eat in the morning. (1)
If you believe eating breakfast is vital to cultivating excellent health, you’re in good company; many people who don’t eat in the morning feel they’re making a mistake, and may wonder if changing their ways would be a smart move.
Let’s get the real scoop on whether skipping breakfast can make us fat or undermine our efforts to feel strong and lead long and healthy lives.
Habits: the Cornerstone of Good Health?
It’s true that breakfast-eaters enjoy better overall health than those who run out the door to start their day on an empty stomach.
In fact, people who eat breakfast tend to weigh less than those who skip it, as well as enjoying a lower risk of developing several chronic disorders, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. (2, 3, 4)
It’s important to keep in mind that this information comes from observational studies. This type of study does not provide the irrefutable evidence clinical trials do, because conclusions are based on information given by study participants with no professional supervision or control over variables.
Data can be inaccurate or unreliable in observational studies, and the actual cause of end results is difficult or impossible to pinpoint.
So even though people who eat breakfast are usually healthier than those who don’t, eating a meal in the morning may not be the reason for this difference.
Researchers believe the most likely explanation is that breakfast-eaters have established other habits that contribute to their good health.
For example, people who eat breakfast usually choose healthier dietary components which may provide more abundant sources of micronutrients and fiber, which can have dramatic effects on health. (5, 6)
On the flip side of the coin, breakfast-skippers report they exercise less than people who eat a morning meal; they also admit to smoking more, as well as consuming larger quantities of alcohol more frequently. (7)
These are all habits that could easily account for the differences in participants’ overall health, rather than whether or not breakfast is on the morning agenda.
Breakfast and Metabolism
Another point often brought up in regard to breakfast is that eating in the morning boosts the metabolism, providing a sort of “kick-start” for burning calories.
This theory is based on the thermic effect of food, or the extra calories required during the digestive process. But since metabolism is dependent on the total number of calories taken in over a 24-hour period, the time of day these calories are consumed is not the deciding factor.
Research confirms no difference exists between the number of calories burned over the course of a full day by people who eat breakfast and people who don’t. (8)
As for the question of weight gain in relation to breakfast, it doesn’t seem logical that not eating would result in packing on the pounds.
Some proponents of eating breakfast claim that excess hunger leads to overeating later in the day, or having a much larger lunch than they would if they had eaten in the morning.
But most people would not consume enough extra calories at lunch to compensate for the skipped morning meal.
A recent 4-month controlled trial tracked eating habits and body weight of more than 300 men and women who were overweight or obese. The results were clear: researchers recorded no differences between the weight of those who ate breakfast and those who skipped it. (12)
Other studies reached the same conclusion; no discernable differences in weight were noted between the groups who ate breakfast and the groups who skipped it. (13)
Potential Health Benefits for Breakfast-Skippers
If you’ve heard about intermittent fasting, you may be aware of some of the eating patterns associated with this approach.
Intermittent fasting has become a popular trend in recent years, and many people have had very good results using it for weight management, as well as for making improvements in other aspects of health.
One of the most common intermittent fasting patterns is called the 16/8 plan, which involves eating during an 8-hour time period, and then abstaining from food for 16 hours.
Most people using this method prefer skipping breakfast and then eating two meals daily: lunch and dinner.
Intermittent fasting has been tested as a possible avenue for the prevention of diabetes, and research indicates it could be useful in reducing oxidative stress, inflammation, and blood cholesterol levels. (16, 17, 18)
However, some people don’t do well with this type of program, so keep in mind that skipping meals won’t suit everyone, nor will it always result in weight loss or other positive changes. (19)
Some issues reported by those who have trouble with intermittent fasting protocols include feeling faint, difficulty with concentration, and the development of headaches. (20)
The Bottom Line
It appears there really isn’t anything special about breakfast; focusing on healthy foods and making smart lifestyle choices are probably much more important than the timing of caloric intake.
Observational studies that seem to support the idea that eating breakfast could have detrimental effects on health can’t take other factors into consideration; controlled trials capable of measuring metabolic response to food intake and timing have proven it makes no difference when we eat.
Summary: For those who wake up hungry, eating breakfast makes sense; anyone who doesn’t feel ready for food until mid-day should not be concerned about waiting. Eating a meal in the morning is clearly a matter of personal preference, rather than a habit to be labeled as “good” or “bad.”