I have a theory about breakfast. It’s something I’ve been thinking for quite some time now – and it’s this, I eat less throughout the day when I skip breakfast than if I eat it. It’s like it just dampens down my need for food for the whole day. I’m therefore thinking that I should stop eating it on days where I don’t wake up hungry.
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‘Quelle horreur Helen’, you might be saying ‘do you want to get fat?’
After all, we have it drummed into us that breakfast is THE most important meal of the day.
Surely without it, our metabolisms fail and we’ll all be mugging old ladies for croissants come 11am.
Well, my argument for this was always – as I DON’T reach for the pastries come 11am, surely skipping breakfast is good for me? Surely the number of calories I, therefore, miss out on by not consuming it puts me in better stead for losing weight? – well unless my metabolism does go into free fall of course.
So, Is Breakfast Important or Not?
I was curious about this and so I put the question to nutritionist Amanda Hamilton recently for a piece I was writing and she said…
The “breakfast boosts metabolism” myth is based on the ‘thermic effect of food’. Around 10% of our calorie burn comes from the energy that we use to digest, absorb and assimilate the nutrients in our meals. Roughly speaking, eat a 350-calorie breakfast and you will burn 35 calories in the process. But notice that you’ve eaten 350 extra calories to burn that 35 – a net gain of 315 calories. No matter what time of day you eat at, you’ll burn off around 10% of the calories in your food through the thermic effect of food. So, whether you eat your breakfast at 7am, 10am or never, if you eat roughly the same amount and types of food overall, its effect on your metabolism will be the same.
In fact, in a small study on breakfast-eaters – published in the British Journal of Nutrition – in a 700 calorie breakfast inhibited the use of fat for fuel throughout the day. Put simply, when we eat carbohydrate, we use it for fuel, and this stops our bodies from tapping into our stubborn stored fat. Constant grazing might be what’s keeping fat locked away in your belly, bum or thighs.
My advice is to watch the clock, not the calories. Try fasting some mornings until noon. This is an intermittent fasting method known 16/8 method (rather than 5:2) and I find it one of the best ways to release stubborn fat.
Now – I’m updating this post in 2020, when the idea of intermittent fasting is not unusual but back in 2013 when I originally wrote this the concept was seriously revolutionary – but the studies kept coming…
And about the time I wrote the piece, one large study from the US looked at exactly what evidence there is out that there that skipping breakfast really did stop people losing weight (or vice versa).
It analysed the studies done on the idea and basically found something interesting.
No-one has really proved that eating breakfast makes you thinner – in fact, in the abstract of the study the authors say ‘The belief in the PEBO (proposed effect of breakfast on obesity) exceeds the strength of scientific evidence.’ That’s right, they directly stated that one of the most commonly held beliefs about what we should eat hasn’t actually been proven.
In fact, trials have shown that breakfast skippers made to eat breakfast lose weight; conversely, breakfast eaters made to cut out breakfast lose weight too.
They have found that yes, people skipping breakfast often eat a bigger lunch but the calories they consume don’t usually exceed those they would have taken in eating breakfast.
The Case For Breakfast
While that might sound pretty definitive, other studies have found breakfast to be important. One showed that people eating 700 calorie breakfasts lose weight just fine thanks.
In fact, when I interviewed Dr Michael Gregor, author of the excellent, meticulously researched book How Not To Diet: The Groundbreaking Science of Healthy, Permanent Weight Loss recently he was very much behind the concept that breakfast could be good saying that studies show calories eaten in the morning causes you to accumulate less body fat than the exact same number of calories eaten at night.
He talked about a study of women eating a 1400 calorie a day diet that found those who ate a 700 calorie breakfast, a 500 calorie lunch and a 200 calorie dinner lost twice as much weight and 5cm more from their waist, than a group eating the large meal at dinner. It seems our body uses more energy burning calories in the AM creating a bigger deficit at the end of the day.
There was even one piece of research from Tel Aviv that showed eating cake first thing made you thin!
There’s also some evidence that starting our day with something healthy like Weetabix and milk helps increase levels of calcium and fibre in the diet and that breakfast skippers tend to be lowest in these nutrients.
In other words, looking at the research as to whether breakfast is important, no-one actually knows what role eating breakfast conclusively plays in weight.
That’s right, there’s no guaranteed metabolic free fall that leads to extra pounds. No across-the-board croissant binges cancelling everything out. And no conclusive proof that eating breakfast makes you thin – or fat.
So, Breakfast Yes – or No?
Now, I’m not saying that everyone should give up breakfast – remember, I just write a blog, I don’t have a science degree – just spend my days speaking to people who do!
The fact is, breakfast has a lot of benefits other than whether it affects weight or not.
Often breakfast is the only time many people consume a decent whack of dairy in a day; it’s a good chance to pop in a portion of fruit or two, and if you eat carbs, it gives a decent dose of B vitamins that you’ll need to make up somewhere else in your day.
If you scan down to the comments below, you’ll also see a fantastic case for why eating breakfast is important for health – showing research indicating it might play a role in reducing risk of heart disease and potentially play a role in insulin resistance.
But when it comes to whether or not it impacts on your weight, it seems that what the conflicting trials do seem to prove is that bodies are completely individual – and that’s possibly how we should take the breakfast rule too.
As an individual.
If you wake up starving and can’t focus without food until lunch then chances are that yes, you are better off eating something healthy at home than descending into a chocolate binge come 11am.
But note – healthy is the keyword there. One reason why breakfast leaves many people hungry is that many cereals are full of sugar and fry ups are not the best start to every day! A healthy breakfast mixes low GI carbs, low fat protein and some kind of fruit – or even vegetables (check out this post on savoury porridge for some ideas on that).
And, if you are eating cereal, make sure you don’t overdo it on the portion sizes with this handy guide to how much you should eat.
If you’re in the UK and need to grab breakfast out, have a look at our guide to calories in Leon, who do some of great healthy breakfasts, to see what fits the perfect breakfast calorie budget.
Or, if you’re more of a bacon butty type (that would be me), our guide to the calories in Greggs might help you start your day in a better way.
But if you’re like me and don’t always wake up hungry – and if you do skip breakfast don’t reach for extra food (and in fact seemingly eat less throughout the day) then maybe you don’t need it.
If you want to read more about the science of intermittent fasting, check out these books…
Eat Fast Slim
Written by Amanda who I talked to for this piece, it was one of the first books looking into the science of fasting in the UK.
The 8 Hour Diet
Packed with science and research led fact, this gives you a clear plan to follow and the reasons why it will work to keep you motivated.
The Fast 800
By the author of the incredibly popular 5:2 this plan explores the concept of very low calorie eating – and intermittent fasting.
Main images: freedigitalphotos.net
Who is The Wellness Nerd?
My name is Helen Foster and I’m a health journalist and wellness author. Publications I’ve written for include Women’s Health, Reader’s Digest, Body and Soul, Good Health at the Daily Mail and more. I have also written 16 books on health and nutrition.