For years I told people that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Eat a big meal to start the day and everything will be ok. I published the advice in three books, referenced the smartest minds in nutrition, and the tip was generally accepted as “the right thing” to do for your health.
Turns out the “right thing” really depends on whether you want to eat early in the morning. That’s because two recent studies found that eating breakfast has no direct impact on weight loss. We’re not talking observational studies, like many done prior. This was a direct comparison of an early meal versus no early meal. And the results had a simple message:
Eating breakfast is not weight loss magic.
From a physiological perspective, there’s nothing special about eating early in the morning and triggering weight loss.
In the study, which looked at more than 300 people, participants were split into 2 groups. One ate breakfast and the other did not. While there were some small differences, the bottom line was that there was no significant difference in weight loss between the breakfast eaters and the breakfast skippers. In fact, both groups lost weight and this occurred without the researchers telling participants what to eat (or not eat) for breakfast.
The growing evidence should be a welcome relief for those who don’t like eating first thing in the morning. If there’s one thing that needs to be understood it’s this:
Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day.
But neither is lunch, dinner, or snacks. This isn’t meant to be puzzling or a letdown to those of you trying to crack the weight loss code. Believing that one meal is the foundation of success can be detrimental to your healthy living goals.
The Diet Refresh: What We Know About Meal Timing
The problem with the breakfast-is-best hypothesis is that it steers people into the “there’s only one way to eat” mentality. The truth is, it doesn’t matter when you eat your meals: Morning, night, or spread out through the day. If there are behavioral reasons why you want to eat breakfast, such as it energizes or improves focus, then those are good reasons to have an early meal.
If breakfast feels forced or makes you sluggish, then there’s no pressure to force feed just for the sake of eating. In fact, recent research also suggests that it’s your choice if you want to eat three meals, six meals or anywhere in between, and that there is a meal frequency that’s ideal for weight loss.
If you that sounds wrong, you might want to read this study and this one as well. Research can be flawed, but our body’s biological nature is not meant to be deceiving. Weight loss depends on how many calories you eat, the foods you eat, and the macronutrients you consume in your diet (that is, what’s the ratio of proteins, carbs, and fats). Add in your exercise tendencies, and that will determine how you look and feel.
Some people believe that eating more frequently has a host of benefits, such as curbing appetite. This can be true—but the opposite can also occur. Eating more can make you feel hungrier and consume more calories.
And there’s the thought that frequent meals improves your metabolism. But as long as total calories are equal (and macronutrients are balanced), your body will burn the same number of calories in the digestion process. That’s just science.
Yes, there are other processes in your body that can play a role in the weight loss process—most notably stress and hormones—but that’s a separate conversation altogether. Before you can even worry about those individual issues, you must make sure that you’ve established baseline eating habits that are the foundation for a healthy life. Once you do that, you might experience the type of change you didn’t think could happen for your body.
Why The ‘Breakfast is Best’ Model is Broken (And Always Has Been)
Here’s the problem with the breakfast hypothesis: The moment you insist that breakfast is essential, you create a mental block that over-emphasizes the importance of the meal. Suddenly if you miss breakfast, you believe that your fat loss will be slowed, you’re destined to eat more at the next meal, and your energy will be off.
It’s the real issue with diets: they create psychological barriers that make the journey seem harder, rather than suggesting flexible solutions that make the process more convenient to your lifestyle.
Changing your body is as much a psychological process as it is a physical one. You need to believe that you can become better. But you also need to believe in the program you’re following, and use an approach that can be maintained.
Any time you want to make a change you’ll have to make sacrifices. But don’t confuse working harder and removing certain habits with losing all control. That’s a recipe for failure.
For years, we were told breakfast is the most important meal of the day. In fact, physicians are notorious for scolding patients who skip breakfast—particularly people who are embarking on a plan to lose weight.
There is some credence here, by the way: a study conducted by scientists in Massachusetts in 2008 showed that participants who ate a calorically dense breakfast lost more weight than those who didn’t.
The theory was that the higher caloric intake early in the day led people to snack less often throughout the day and lowered caloric intake overall. There are also some epidemiological studies that show a connection between skipping breakfast and higher body weight.
However, the crux of the breakfast study is ultimately that a larger breakfast leads to lower overall caloric intake. That is, the argument for a larger breakfast ultimately boils down to energy balance; if that study is reliant on the position that weight loss comes down to calories in versus calories out, then the makeup of the food shouldn’t matter. And this isn’t the case.
What you choose for breakfast will have a big impact on what you eat the rest of the day.
Case in point–eating 5 eggs is not the same as eating 1 donuts, even if the calories are matched. So it’s true that if you choose to eat breakfast, the benefits of that first meal will depend on your food selection.
However, if we’ve learned anything from Mark Haub’s Twinkie Diet, it’s that you can eat garbage and lose weight; so clearly, something else is going on. The pro-breakfast folks declare that because insulin sensitivity is higher in the morning, eating a carbohydrate-rich meal early in the day is the greatest opportunity to take in a large amount of energy without the danger of weight gain.
There’s only one tiny problem with that theory: insulin sensitivity is not higher in particular hours of the morning. It’s higher after a minimum of eight hours of fasting. It just so happens that you fast when you sleep, so the information is misleading. More specifically, insulin sensitivity is higher when your glycogen levels (the energy stores in your body) are depleted, like after your sleeping fast.
That’s why some people experience benefits by pushing back their first meal. (Technically, your first meal is always breakfast because it’s when you “break” your overnight fast.) Intermittent fasting takes that a step farther and turns your body into a fat-burning, muscle-building machine. You see, if you skip breakfast and extend the fasting period beyond the typical eight to ten hours, you increase insulin even more.
In the end, there is no science that supports the idea—from a direct comparison—that eating breakfast is better than not eating breakfast. This is not about food choice; it’s simple a matter of food timing.
In reality, this is closely linked to the multiple meal hypothesis. French researchers found that there is “no evidence of improved weight loss” by eating more frequently. And they even went a step farther to show that in terms of the number of calories you burn per day, it does not matter if you graze or gorge—assuming that you’re eating the number of calories you need to lose weight and the macronutrients (proteins, carbs, and fats) are equal.
If you’re told to eat 2,000 calories per day, it doesn’t matter if it’s separated into five 400-calorie meals or three larger calorie feasts. (However, the composition of those meals does matter.)
But that’s not all. Canadian researchers decided to compare three meals per day to six meals per day, breaking the six into three main meals and three snacks (the routine that has been advocated by every diet book written in the last twenty years). The results? There was no significant difference in weight loss, but the people who ate three meals per day were more satisfied and felt less hunger.
What does it all mean? Some people might have a psychological dependence or belief that they need breakfast. It makes them feel better, it gives piece of mind, or maybe it very realistically helps control morning hunger.
From a physiological perspective–or how your body actually reacts to breakfast–there’s nothing special about eating early in the morning when it comes to triggering weight loss. In fact, forcing yourself to eat at a particular time, or a prescribed number of times, is just as big of a problem as saying you need breakfast.
What About Your Metabolism?
Before we go on, remember there is nothing wrong with eating breakfast. You can eat breakfast and be perfectly healthy and use it as part of an effective weight lost plan. But it’s important to remember that if you’re forcing breakfast for it’s supposed weight loss and metabolism benefits, you’re now free to choose if you want an early meal.
In another study conducted at the University of Bath, participants either ate or skipped breakfast for 6 weeks. This time, there was no change in metabolic (fat loss) or cardiovascular health. This was important because unlike the general weight loss study, this research assessed the old concept of, “breakfast ignites your metabolism first thing in the morning.” And yet, when metabolisms were actually tested, there wasn’t any evidence to prove the theory.
While there isn’t anything wrong with eating breakfast, potential downsides do exist. The problem with a traditional breakfast is that it creates a big eating window. That is, the number of hours during the day that you are consuming food. This is typically about a fifteen-hour period (between seven a.m. and ten p.m.).
In a recent groundbreaking study by the scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, it was found that a larger eating window was associated with more fat storage and a higher likelihood of health problems such as diabetes and liver disease.
This study was done with mice, but the findings are too important to overlook. The mice were put on a high-fat diet that would typically cause obesity. One group of mice ate whenever they wanted, and the other could only eat for eight hours, starting in the afternoon and finishing at night. The mice that ate whenever they wanted gained fat, developed high cholesterol, high blood glucose, and liver damage.
The mice with the eight-hour feeding period starting in the afternoon? They weighed 28 percent less and had no health problems, even though they ate the same amount of fatty foods.
The scientists believe that by cutting down how long you have to eat, your body does a better job of metabolizing your fat, glucose, and cholesterol. What’s more, because you’re eating for a smaller window of time and starting later in the day, your body is burning more fat. Why? Because you pushed back breakfast, extended your overnight fast (which occurs while you sleep), and became a fat-burning machine.
What’s more, by skipping breakfast (or just starting it later in the day), you also prime your body to feel hungrier less often. That’s because the moment you start eating food, your body creates an expectation for calories. And for most people, that expectation means hunger pangs that are too hard to overcome, leaving you grabbing for snacks by ten a.m. and eating more calories than you should by the end of the day.
To Breakfast or Not To Breakfast: The Choice Is Yours
Here’s what you really need to know about breakfast: It’s great for some but not for others. (I love breakfast foods, but rarely eat breakfast anymore.) Insisting that someone has to eat breakfast to lose weight could be the one change that actually makes it harder to experience long-lasting change. Some people aren’t morning eaters, and there’s no reason they have to change that aspect to be healthy.
Don’t believe in dogma. Just as you have a unique body, you can have a unique diet.
If you like breakfast, eat it. If you like snacking, make that your habit. But don’t let anyone convince you that your success will depend on any one meal.
But the process can be made easier. It can be enjoyable. And most of all, it will be effective if you take the right approach.
Eat breakfast. Don’t eat breakfast. That choice is yours.
And by making that choice, and determining what’s best for you, then you’ll be on the path to change that works and lasts.
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Adam Bornstein is a New York Times bestselling author and, according to The Huffington Post, “one of the most inspiring sources in all of health and fitness.” An award-winning writer and editor, Bornstein was the Fitness and Nutrition editor for Men’s Health, Editorial Director at LIVESTRONG.com, and a columnist for SHAPE, Men’s Fitness, and Muscle & Fitness. He’s also a nutrition and fitness advisor for LeBron James, Cindy Crawford, Lindsey Vonn, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. His work has been featured in dozens of publications, including The New York Times, Fast Company, ESPN, and GQ, and he’s appeared on Good Morning America, The Today Show, E! News, and The Cheddar.