As with many hot-off-the-presses nutrition claims backed by “real” science, this breakfast-vilifying conclusion is perfect for stoking discussion (great) and for generating grabby headlines that mislead readers into believing faulty conclusions (terrible).
Let’s start with the good stuff: The study at the heart of these headlines was published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. So far, so good. This review examined thirteen randomized controlled trials that looked at adults eating breakfast versus not eating breakfast. The study authors were interested in differences in weight and energy intake (i.e. calorie consumed) between the two groups.
Okay, I’m hooked. I’ve already waxed poetic about the awesomeness of randomized controlled trials in this post, so clearly I’m on board.
The authors found that adults who skipped breakfast tended to weigh slightly less (like, under a pound less) and ate fewer calories throughout the day (about 260 fewer calories) than breakfast eaters.
Woah! Does that mean skipping breakfast = automatic weight loss? (Less than a pound, but still.)
Let’s take a closer look at the results. In their discussion, the researchers acknowledge “substantial inconsistency across trial results” and that “[a]ll of the included trials were at high or unclear risk of bias in at least one domain and had only short term follow-ups.” Check out this graphic for an amazing summary of the included studies. Look at some of those error bars! (A sentence I never thought I’d write, but there we are.)
I appreciate the authors’ critical reflection on the shortcomings of these studies. In addition, they conclude that (1) caution should be used when recommending breakfast across the board as a way to lose weight, and (2) these results are best applied to prompting discussion and further research of the topic rather than giving specific recommendations to everyone.
These conclusions might seem obvious, but according to many of the headlines out there, a recommendation to exercise caution in recommending breakfast to lose weight has morphed into
and my favorite,
“Eating breakfast may be making you fat, says study” (Thanks, NY Post.)
From these headlines, it’s an easy leap to the conclusion that everyone who wants to lose weight should skip breakfast.
No, dear reader, no. While most of the articles go on to acknowledge the limitations I mention above, it’s not uncommon for people to read only the headlines of articles. And that’s a problem when it comes to nutrition topics. In additional, this topic is tends to satisfy confirmation biases and reductionist thinking about nutrition–a subject I subtly and professionally tackle here. I’ve kept all this in mind when choosing the title of this post.
So, what should I do?
Pause. Take a step back. There no reason to change anything about what you’re doing.
If you’re eating breakfast, continue eating breakfast. Breakfast is a great opportunity to eat plenty of fiber, to enjoy a hearty dose of many vitamins, and to spread out your protein intake throughout the day.
If you’re not eating breakfast, in many cases, you don’t need to add breakfast to your daily schedule. Some people are just not hungry in the morning. (Although if you’re one of those, check to make sure you’re not overeating late into the night. Night eating, particularly of less nutritious foods, may decrease morning hunger.)
Yes, that’s right. This registered dietitian said it. If you’re healthy and feeling just fine not eating breakfast, there may not be any reason to add breakfast to your day.
(Of course, if you are ill or have a chronic disease like diabetes, breakfast-skipping may not be a good idea. Talk to your doctor or registered dietitian.)
Some evidence exists that breakfast eaters are more likely to be successful at achieving and maintaining weight loss goals (see: The National Weight Control Registry). However, it is difficult to tease out how much of this success is due to eating breakfast and how much might be because individuals who eat nutritious foods and exercise are more likely to eat breakfast (for example).
The Bottom Line?
As with many nutrition topics, there’s no clear-cut recommendation for everyone when it comes to whether or not to eat breakfast, no strict set of rules. This fact makes some people uncomfortable. Don’t let it!
What should I eat for breakfast?
If you’re a breakfast eater, seize the day and make it more nutritious. Treat breakfast like any other nutritious meal–no need to eat sweet foods! One of my favorite breakfasts is the noodle soup pictured above. For any meal, choose whole grains, lean proteins, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. For more detail, check out THIH’s Educate page.
Right now, I usually start the day with either eggs and fruit or yogurt, fruit, and granola. Nutritious and lasts until lunch–now that’s the kind of breakfast I want!
The adventurous (no, really):
Grilled Fish Tacos with Crabapple-Peach Chutney
Herbed Tofu and Red Rice-Stuffed Peppers with Scamorza
P.S. Any questions?
P.P.S. Are you a breakfast eater? If so, what’s on your breakfast menu?
P.P.P.S. I plan to do a series of posts on breakfast coming up–stay tuned!
P.P.P.P.S. The recipe list in this post reminds me of when I used to come up with crazy recipe names. Like, Salmon Swims Through Pineapple-Tomato Chutney, “I Meant to Fry Them But I Can’t Handle Hot Oil” Apple Cider Doughnuts, and Acorn Squash Cradles Avocado, Feta, Tomato and Egg. (Oh, Jessie). See more in this post if you’re feeling particularly silly today. I know I am!