In the past, some studies suggested that eating breakfast might help promote weight loss, while skipping a morning meal might lead to weight gain.
This recommendation was largely based on observational studies, such as the one conducted by the National Weight Control Registry, which showed an association between eating breakfast and weight maintenance for as long as six years. That long-term study found that 78% of the weight loss participants who lost 30 pounds or more and maintained their weight loss for at least one year, ate breakfast every day. But the gold standard to research is a controlled randomized trial.
New Randomized Study on Breakfast and Weight Loss
According to a new review of research published January in the British Medical Journal, there’s no strong evidence to support the idea that eating breakfast aids weight loss.
The authors of the review looked at data from 13 randomized controlled trials conducted over the past three decades, mostly in the United States and United Kingdom.
- The study found that people who ate breakfast tended to consume more calories per day than people who skipped it.
- On average, breakfast eaters ate 260 more calories in a day, meaning it’s unlikely they ate significantly lighter at other meals even though they consumed extra calories in the morning.
- The authors also found that people who ate breakfast tended to weigh slightly more than people who skipped it.
- On average, breakfast eaters were 0.44 kilograms (15.5 ounces) heavier.
But Does This Mean Breakfast Is “Unhealthy”?
Based on this study, the authors caution that “Although eating breakfast regularly could have other important effects, such as improved concentration and attentiveness levels in childhood, caution is needed when recommending breakfast for weight loss in adults.”
Yet while this study suggests that the addition of breakfast might not be a good strategy for weight loss, nutritionists are not ready to make a hard and fast recommendation regarding eating breakfast and dieting. Further randomized controlled trials of high quality are needed to examine the role of breakfast eating in the approach to weight management.
The Quality of the Weight Loss Breakfast Studies Is Low
According to the authors of the new review, more research is needed to examine the role breakfast might play in weight management. The authors warned existing data on this topic is of limited quality.
- Most of the clinical trials they assessed included small numbers of participants. Only two of the trials included more than 50 people.
- The average length of the trials was also short.
- They were conducted over periods of 2 to 16 weeks, providing no evidence on the long-term effects of breakfast habits.
- The results also varied from one trial to another.
- For example, eight trials found that breakfast eaters tended to consume more calories per day than breakfast skippers, but two trials found the opposite.
Some Breakfasts are Healthier than Others
The other consideration to keep in mind is that in the studies the contents of the breakfasts that people were given varied significantly.
Liz Weinandy, a registered dietitian at Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, warned that “When you look at the intervention groups, what they were given for breakfast is not generally what we would recommend people eat. For example, participants in several trials were given processed cereals, such as Kellogg’s Rice Krispies or Frosted Flakes. In one study, they were given white bread with strawberry jam. These foods are high in refined carbohydrates and low in fiber and protein.
“I could see where this would add weight gain, because if you have a really high-carbohydrate breakfast, especially without fiber or protein, that makes people hungry again sooner. It makes your blood sugar go up fast, and your body secretes a lot of insulin to pull it back down, and then people get hungry again more quickly.” she explained.
Sharon Zarabi, a registered dietitian and bariatric program director at Lenox Hill Hospital, agrees. “It’s not the breakfast, it’s what we’re eating for breakfast. Breakfasts rich in fiber, protein, and healthy fats can help people feel full for longer, compared to meals high in refined carbohydrates. That’s why it’s not enough to count calories, she adds.
Instead, Zarabi encourages people to pay attention to the macronutrient contents of their meals and choose foods rich in nutrients.
Breakfast can help people meet their nutritional needs
Eating breakfast isn’t a sure-fire way to lose weight, but it might have other benefits.
Weinandy says it gives people a chance to get some of the essential vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients they need for optimum health. “Skipping breakfast is almost seen as a missed opportunity for getting some of those nutrients that most Americans are not getting enough of, like potassium, calcium, and fiber,” she said.
If people eat nutrient-rich foods later in the day, then skipping breakfast might not be a problem. But in her experience, many breakfast skippers reach for unhealthy snacks instead.
There is No One-Size-Fits-All Approach
Ultimately, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to healthy eating or weight management.
Further thoughts from Certified Nutritionists:
- I think everyone responds to different diets differently. What works for one person may not always work for another.
- I think it’s important to speak with the person, probe to learn what has worked for them in the past, and try to make things sustainable.
- For people who eat breakfast, the healthiest approach is to choose foods rich in nutrients and low in refined sugars and unhealthy fats.
- I would recommend that you choose a balanced breakfast that nourishes your body. Aim to include a source of protein, healthy fats, whole grains, and a vegetable or fruit.
- For example, this can be an avocado and egg in a whole-wheat tortilla wrap, Greek yogurt with berries and nuts, oats with fruit and nut butter, or a protein bar. Limit breakfast foods that are processed and high in refined sugars.
- Eating nutritious foods throughout the rest of the day is also important for supporting not only weight management, but good overall health.
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