For years I told people that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. 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.
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Turns out “the right thing” really depends on whether you want to eat early in the morning. Two recent studies found that eating breakfast has no direct impact on weight loss. We’re not talking observational studies—this was a direct comparison of an early meal versus no early meal. The results had a simple message:
“From a physiological perspective, there’s nothing special about eating early in the mornings and triggering weight loss.”
In one of the studies, which looked at more than 300 people, participants were split into two 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.
Believing that one meal is the foundation of success can be detrimental to your healthy-living goals.
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.
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 you want to eat breakfast, such as it energizes or improves focus, then those are good reasons to have an early meal. If it 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 it’s your choice if you want to eat three meals, six meals, or anywhere in between, and that there is no meal frequency that’s ideal for weight loss.
If that sounds wrong to you, 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 (that is, 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.
There’s also the belief 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 factors that can play a role in losing weight—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 to your body.
Why the ‘Breakfast Is Best’ Model Is Broken
The moment you insist that breakfast is essential, you create a mental block that overemphasizes the importance of the meal. Suddenly, if you miss breakfast, you believe your fat loss will be slowed, you’re destined to eat more at the next meal, and your energy will be off.
Changing your body is as much a psychological process as it is a physical one.
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. 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 was 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.
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 five eggs is not the same as eating a donut, 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 further 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 10 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 simply 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. They even went a step further 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 20 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.
What About Your Metabolism?
In another study conducted at the University of Bath, participants either ate or skipped breakfast for six 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 15-hour period (between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m.).
In a recent ground-breaking study by the scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, 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 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 10 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
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.
Don’t let anyone convince you that your success will depend on any one meal. The process can be made easier. It can be enjoyable. And most of all, it will be effective if you take the right approach. Determine what’s best for you, and you’ll be on the path to change that works and lasts.
This post originally appeared on Born Fitness and was reposted with the author’s permission. Adam Bornstein is the author of Man 2.0: Engineering the Alpha. To work with him on online fitness and diet programs, you can apply for his coaching program. The views expressed herein are his and his alone.