To breakfast or not to breakfast: as a dietitian, it’s a question I get asked a lot.
I learned way back in nutrition school that skipping breakfast is dangerous, and that a healthy diet starts with eating at the beginning of the day.
The reasoning was relatively simple. The argument suggested that if you skip breakfast, then you're more likely to eat more later in the day. And eating breakfast is another opportunity to fuel your body with more nutrients.
But, if you dig in on the research, the relationship between breakfast and weight loss (and general health) is mostly inconclusive.
Research also suggests that breakfast eaters may have lower cholesterol, blood sugar, and risk of heart disease, but many of these findings are correlational and not causational. Put another way: there has never been a straightforward answer about whether we should be eating breakfast, especially in terms of weight loss and maintenance.
It’s no surprise, then, that a group of researchers set out to give us a conclusive answer on whether eating breakfast actually helps us manage our weight.
Breakfast and Weight Loss: The Answer?
In order to provide a clearer answer about skipping breakfast (or eating it), researchers decided to review all of the studies published about breakfast.
The result was a meta-analysis of randomized controlled breakfast studies that set out to examine the effects of breakfast on weight change (either gain or loss), as well as daily energy intake for "people living in high-income countries."
Based on specific exclusion criteria, the review included 13 studies done between the years of 1990 and 2018. Studies looked at either breakfast’s impact on weight, or the impact of breakfast on 24-hour calorie intake.
The conclusion: "The addition of breakfast might not be a good strategy for weight loss, regardless of established breakfast habit.”
The review further stated that the extra calories from breakfast may actually cause weight gain.
Before you swear off breakfast, there are a few things you should know.
Skipping Breakfast Isn't Black or White
While research claims to have found that eating breakfast may be detrimental to weight loss, the limitations of the meta-analysis overshadow that conclusion.
In fact, the authors themselves state, “As the quality of the included studies was mostly low, the findings should be interpreted with caution.”
All 13 studies were, according to the review, at high-risk of bias due to a lack of blinding. This is an important factor to consider because if a study is biased, this can directly impact the findings.
Study length for the weight loss effect of breakfast ranged between two and 16 weeks, and the studies that examined calorie intake ranged from 8 hours to 6 weeks.
This is important because short-term studies and follow-up do not allow researchers to adequately judge the true effects of breakfast on weight, calorie intake, or health.
Maybe most importantly, the meta-analysis didn't factor what people were eating for breakfast. You can’t disregard the food quality of the meal you’re studying and still get an accurate picture of how the meal impacts health or weight loss.
And yet, almost unbelievably, the studies used in this review lumped both high- and low-quality foods under the term "breakfast."
Just to give you a sense of why this doesn't work: One study’s breakfast meal consisted of mostly refined carbs: crisped rice cereal, semi-skimmed milk, white bread, butter, strawberry jam, and orange juice.
While another study’s participants ate cereal, followed by a chocolate-covered cookie between 10:30 and 11 am. Sounds delicious, but not exactly a tightly controlled assessment of what might cause weight loss or gain.
Some studies controlled what participants ate, meaning they had healthier options, while others allowed participants to choose their own foods altogether and self-report their intake (another flaw that’s common in nutrition studies).
And possibly the biggest flaw from a weight loss perspective: there didn’t appear to be any higher-protein breakfasts in any of the studies. (And we know the strong relationship between eating protein and weight loss.)
The deeper you look into the research, the harder it became to trust the conclusive nature of the results.
The total breakfast calories differed between the studies as well: two of the studies offered breakfasts that were equal to or over 700 calories; another stipulated a breakfast of 30% of daily calories. That’s a heck of a lot of calories for breakfast and can definitely influence weight and overall calorie numbers.
Should You Eat Breakfast?
In no way does this review of studies offer us any sort of conclusive evidence that breakfast causes weight gain (or loss), or that it affects our health in any other way.
We still need a breakfast study that follows people for more than a few weeks, that offers high-quality foods to participants, and that limits calories for the meal to something more reasonable (say 500 calories).
Well-constructed nutrition studies are notoriously tough to carry out. But, there's a more important message if you're trying to decide if skipping breakfast is right for you.
If you step outsides the breakfast research, the truth is that we’re all different. No one way of eating works for everyone.
My advice to people who ask me if they should be eating breakfast will stay the same: If you eat breakfast, and you enjoy it, continue on. If you enjoy skipping breakfast, and that works for you, continue on.
From a higher-level understanding of science, we know that calories still govern weight loss (and gain), and your food choices will help determine how much (or little) you eat. So, your pattern of eating is more based on preference and behavior rather than finding a one-size-fits-all method of eating.
Find an eating plan that feels right for you, and then stick with and you'll likely see good results.