To Eat or Not to Eat Breakfast? Study Casts Doubt on Breakfast-Obesity Link

Wednesday Oct 16 | BY |
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Breakfast

After years of being told to eat breakfast to lose weight, a new study says…maybe not.

Trying to lose weight? Eat breakfast.

It’s the advice we’ve heard for years. And there was good reason why. A number of scientific studies reported that those who eat breakfast are more likely lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, while those that skipped were more likely to gain.

New research published in the September 4, 2013, issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, however, seems to contradict all that advice. Their conclusion? The belief that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain is not supported by scientific evidence.

What does this mean? Can you skip breakfast and still lose weight? Is it good to skip breakfast?

What the Study Found

For this study, researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham investigated research on the idea that skipping breakfast causes weight gain. They looked through over 100 studies on the topic, rating abstracts as to “improper use of causal language” and “biased interpretations.” Their intent was to root out those studies that were claiming there was a cause and effect between the two when there wasn’t, or that showed bias in the interpretation of the results.

The results of the meta-analysis found:

  • Theory only presumed true: The current body of scientific knowledge indicates that the effect of breakfast on obesity is only “presumed” true. Studies have established the connection, but have not shown a direct cause and effect relationship between the two.
  • Biased results: According to these researchers, many of the studies contained biased interpretation of the results, improper use of “causal language” (indicating a cause and effect relationship when there was none), misleadingly citing others’ results, and improper use of causal language in citing others’ works.
  • Missing breakfast has little effect on weight gain: The few rigorous, carefully controlled trials that have studied the issue concluded that missing breakfast has little or no effect on weight gain. They added that people who eat breakfast do not necessarily end up consuming fewer daily calories than those who skip it.
  • Associations but no cause and effect: Dozens of large observational studies have found associations between breakfast habits and obesity, but no direct cause and effect. In other words, there may have been other reasons breakfast eaters maintained a healthy weight besides the fact that they were eating breakfast.
  • Change of routine is more important: One long-term, carefully controlled trial had mixed results, showing that moderately obese adults who were habitual breakfast skippers lost an average of roughly 17 pounds when they started a new program that included eating breakfast. But those who usually ate breakfast who were told to avoid eating it lost an average of 20 pounds, as well. Both programs included the same amount of calories, and each resulted in weight loss. The study was small, but researchers note that the key may have been changing eating habits rather than eating or not eating breakfast. Those who made substantial changes in their eating habits achieved better results. Yet many subsequent studies inaccurately cited the results from this one, claiming it was all about eating breakfast.
  • Exercise ignored: In another study, results showed that those who lost weight and kept it off for a year were regularly eating breakfast, but were also slightly more physically active than non-breakfast eaters. Yet the results quoted talked only about eating breakfast.
  • Conflicting results on calories: Other studies reviewed by the Alabama researchers showed that in some cases, depriving people of breakfast led them to eat more calories at lunch, but the extra calories didn’t make up for the ones they missed at breakfast, so they still ended up eating fewer calories overall. In that study, the researchers concluded that for some people, skipping breakfast may help them lose weight, not gain it.

Overall, the researchers stated that scientists are humans, and are susceptible to bias when confirming their own results. “At some point, this becomes absurd,” said lead author Dr. David B. Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Researcher Center at the University of Alabama, told the New York Times. “We’re doing studies that have little or no value. We’re wasting time, intellect and resources, and we’re convincing people of things without actually generating evidence.”

What to Do?

Though the results of this study give us valuable information, it can be difficult to figure out how to use it in our daily lives. Does this mean breakfast isn’t important? What should you do if you’re trying to lose weight?

Every individual is different, and in the end, it’s up to you to listen to your body and make the best choices based on your own experience. Following, however, are a few things you may want to consider when making a choice about breakfast:

  1. Remember breakfast is only one thing: Your overall weight loss effort must involve everything you do, including your total calorie intake, what kind of foods you’re eating (see our post on calorie density), how much you’re exercising or even moving (rather than sitting), getting enough sleep, and managing stress.
  2. Listen to your body: There’s no sense in eating a huge breakfast filled with eggs, meat, and yogurt if you wake up and you’re not hungry. Eating breakfast does jumpstart your metabolism—that much we know. But you may be fine with a grapefruit, a green smoothie, or a fruit cup.
  3. Avoid being overly hungry: The trap for when struggling with weight loss is starving yourself. Letting yourself get overly hungry most often leads to blood sugar crashes and overeating. If you skip or eat a light breakfast, think about having an early lunch so you don’t overdo it at your next meal, or have a healthy mid-morning snack.
  4. Establish a new routine: Routine is important to weight loss, but it can also contribute to weight gain. If you’re gaining weight or are overweight, most likely your current routine is not working. You need to find a new, healthier routine, but once you find it, stick with it—and that includes your sleeping and waking times. The more you stick to a regular sleep routine, the more likely you’ll be to sleep well, which also helps you maintain a healthy weight. In addition, try to eat, snack, and exercise at about the same times every day. If this is impossible, try mapping out your schedule and maintain a general sameness week by week.
  5. Don’t write off the importance of a good breakfast: Although researchers used the breakfast-weight gain theory to show that many studies can overstate their results, that doesn’t mean that you should avoid or skip breakfast to lose weight. One 2010 study, for instance, found that the first meal of the day appears to program the metabolism for the rest of the day. The Mayo Clinic adds that breakfast can reduce hunger later in the day, which can be good for weight loss, since studies have shown that snacking late at night is associated with weight gain. Breakfast is also linked with giving you energy, so you’re more likely to be active the rest of the day. Finally, note that this recent meta-analysis did show that breakfast skipping and obesity are related—it just couldn’t confirm that one caused the other. That means that breakfast may still influence weight gain. We just need more studies to find out.

Do you make it a habit to eat breakfast every day? What do you think of this study?

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Sources
Brown AW, et al., “Belief beyond the evidence: using the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity to show 2 practices that distort scientific evidence,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013 Sep. 4, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24004890.

Anahad O’Conner, “Myths Surround Breakfast and Weight,” NY Times, September 10, 2013, http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/10/myths-surround-breakfast-and-weight/?ref=health&_r=1&.

Fiona Macrae, “Breakfast like a king: Why a high fat bacon and eggs meal is healthiest start to the day (but only first thing),” Daily Mail, March 31, 2010, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-1262453/High-fat-bacon-eggs-breakfast-healthiest-start-day.html.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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