Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal for Weight Loss?

New studies question conventional wisdom
Is Breakfast the Most Important Meal for Weight Loss?

Eat eggs; don’t eat eggs. Put margarine on your toast — no, use butter. Wait, don’t have toast at all.

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Nutrition studies come out at a furious pace, with enough conflicting advice to make a consumer’s head spin. Now, add to the mix new studies that question the conventional wisdom that eating breakfast helps you lose weight.

Two studies published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found no difference in weight or related factors between those who eat breakfast and those who do not, eliciting headlines such as “Stop Breakfast Shaming” and “Is Breakfast Overrated?” What should you make of these new findings?

What the new studies say

In one of the studies, researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham examined eating habits among nearly 300 participants. They randomly assigned one group to eat breakfast, one group not to eat breakfast, and another to maintain their current eating habits. Then they weighed participants after a 16-week period.

The result: There was no significant difference in weight loss among the groups.

In another study, conducted at the University of Bath, 33 lean subjects were assigned to either eat or skip breakfast. Six weeks later, there was no significant difference in metabolic rate and other related factors, including overeating throughout the day.  People who skipped breakfast were, however, more likely to be lethargic and less active in the morning.

Still, nutrition experts encourage caution in interpreting these results. If you’re among the approximately half of Americans concerned about your weight, don’t wipe breakfast off your to-do list just yet, says Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.

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Think long-term

The new studies are interesting conversation starters, Ms. Kirkpatrick says, and they raise important questions about what works and what does not work. But they also come with some limitations.

For example, results from the study of lean participants may not apply to those who struggle with their weight, since eating habits, metabolism and other factors in these populations might differ. What’s more, both studies feature a relatively small number of participants, which limits their universal applicability.

By comparison, the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) is the largest prospective investigation of long-term successful weight loss maintenance. And in that registry, Kirkpatrick points out, more than 70 percent of people who have lost weight and kept it off include eating breakfast among their daily habits.

“I work with a lot of people who have success losing weight; unfortunately, they have less success keeping it off,” she says. Individual success varies from person to person, so often it’s a matter of finding what works best for you — then sticking with it. She also recognizes that some people simply don’t have much appetite in the morning, which plays a part in breakfast preferences.

“If you skip breakfast and you’re having success, keep going,” Ms. Kirkpatrick says. “But my goal with my patients is to help an individual sustain a food plan for the rest of their lives, not just six weeks. And if you look at the NWCR data, it does indicate that if you eat breakfast, it can help.”

Eat the right food

Ms. Kirkpatrick also notes the studies did not dictate what people ate for breakfast.

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For example, when people eat breakfast cereals loaded with white flour and sugar, which burn off quickly and leave you wanting more, weight loss is unlikely. She always suggests that her patients trying to lose weight eat a lean protein, such as eggs, with breakfast. It cuts down on cravings later in the day and helps them avoid consuming too many calories. Breakfast also presents a good opportunity to squeeze in a serving of fruits or vegetables, which Americans tend not to get enough of.

It’s crucial to tailor your meal plans to your needs, says Roxanne Sukol, MD, who has a special interest in diabetes and obesity at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.

If you have diabetes, for instance, eating a meal high in nutritious fats and lean protein in the morning can help modulate blood sugar for the rest of the day. And if you normally do eat breakfast, don’t avoid it to try to compensate for a bowl of ice cream or some other indulgence the night before. Getting your dietary routine and blood sugar off track in the morning can set you up for issues later in the day.

Do what works for you

Sukol’s rules of thumb boil down to common sense: Don’t fixate only on the latest studies. Keep your food choices simple. Eat real food that your great-grandparents would recognize, and not too much of it, no matter the meal.

“Trust your gut,” she says. “If you’re healthy, you’re at a good weight, your energy is good, you’re doing it right. If any of those things are not true, something’s wrong, and you may want to look at what you’re having for breakfast.”

Or whether you’re having it at all.

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