Wellness: The Most Important Meal?

The case for and against breakfast

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Thursday, May 05, 2011
If people who maintain a healthy weight eat breakfast, does that mean eating breakfast will allow you to maintain a healthy weight?

We've all heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In particular, people who are watching their weight are advised to never skip breakfast. Maybe you've even been told that eating a bigger breakfast will help you lose more weight. And yet a recent study published in Nutrition Journal seems to fly in the face of this conventional wisdom. Researchers found that eating a big breakfast simply adds a lot of extra calories to your day and that skipping breakfast can be an effective way to reduce your calorie intake.

Maybe it's time to take a closer look at what we really know about breakfast habits and how they impact nutrition and weight loss. More importantly, let's get beyond the studies and statistics and look at how eating or skipping breakfast might be impacting your health and nutrition.

Does Skipping Breakfast Lead to Weight Gain?

One thing we know about breakfast is that people who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight. We also know from data collected by the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) that over 90 percent of successful dieters usually eat breakfast. These are people who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off for a long period of time.

So it's true: Most people who maintain a healthy weight eat breakfast. However, it does not logically follow that all people who eat breakfast will successfully manage their weight—because successful weight management involves a lot more than what you eat for breakfast.

For example, the NWCR also reveals that those successful dieters—the ones who always eat breakfast—are also exercising regularly. Maybe eating breakfast every day is simply a common trait among people who are disciplined about their health and eating habits all day long. In other words, being someone who says no to dessert probably has just as much to do with successfully managing your weight as being someone who says yes to breakfast. But obviously, eating breakfast does not automatically make you a disciplined eater or a regular exerciser.

The Nutrition Journal study—which included both normal weight and overweight people—didn't give the participants any instructions or guidance about what or how much they should eat. They were simply asked to record what they put in their mouths. And the results suggest that for those who aren't paying much attention, eating breakfast means you end up eating more calories over the course of the day.

Does Eating Breakfast Speed Your Metabolism?

But what if eating breakfast actually increases your metabolism and causes you to burn more calories over the course of the day—maybe even enough to cancel out the calories you eat at breakfast? That might explain why people who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight, wouldn't it?

And that's exactly the argument that many people have made. The only problem with this argument is that there doesn't seem to be much actual evidence to back it up. When I searched through the medical journals for studies or data showing that eating breakfast speeds up your metabolism—or that skipping breakfast slows it down, I came up empty.

Well, not quite empty. I found one study that found that skipping breakfast every day for two weeks had absolutely no effect whatsoever on the subjects' metabolic rate. So, at this point, I don't think we can say that eating breakfast promotes weight loss by accelerating your metabolism.

Will Eating Breakfast Help You Eat Less Later?

But couldn't it be that eating breakfast will make you less hungry, so you eat less over the course of the day? That would certainly lead to weight loss. And in fact, we do have lots of studies showing that dieters who eat breakfast are less hungry throughout the day. And when it comes to controlling hunger, big breakfasts seem to work better than small breakfasts. Breakfasts involving a substantial amount of protein work a whole lot better than breakfasts that are mostly carbohydrates.

Now that would be great if we only ate when we were hungry. But the fact is that we eat when we're not hungry all the time. And as soon as we take the big breakfast idea out of the study environment, where subjects are all on strictly-controlled, reduced-calorie diets, and put it into the real world where most of us live, things fall apart. After a big, protein-rich breakfast at 8 a.m., I bet you won't be particularly hungry when you walk by the bakery three hours later. But once the aroma of fresh-baked cinnamon buns hits your nostrils, what does hunger have to do with it?

In other words, if you are cutting calories in order to manage your weight, eating a bigger breakfast and one that's high in protein may help you feel a little less hungry. But it's still up to you to stick to your eating plan. As the Nutrition Journal study illustrates, you can't just eat a giant breakfast and then take your hands off the wheel and hope for the best. If you want to stay on track, you're going to have to keep steering.

Does it Matter What You Eat For Breakfast?

Although having the right breakfast doesn't guarantee that you'll stick to your plan for the rest of the day, it can certainly help. But here, I think you need to pay attention to what works for you. Experiment to see what kind of breakfast makes you feel the best and supports good choices throughout the rest of the day.

Some of us find that a high fiber cereal works best; others prefer more protein. Some will even find that eating a smaller breakfast or eating it a bit later works best for you. As long as your total intake over the course of the entire day is balanced, nutritious, and allows you to maintain a healthy weight, I'm prepared to be flexible about the first meal of the day.

In the end, it doesn't matter what some guru says. If you're struggling with your weight or find it difficult to control the quantity or quality of your food choices, try switching up your breakfast pattern to see if it makes a difference.

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