Obese people are more likely than lean people to skip breakfast, ya see, so skipping breakfast makes you fat. Better eat breakfast if you want to lose weight.
I’ll bet you dollars to donuts (and you can keep the donuts) you’ve heard that claim at least once. It never made sense to me. If you skip breakfast but eat lunch and dinner, you’re engaging in a bit of intermittent fasting, which if anything has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity. (Mark Sisson has a good article on the subject with references here.) And from a paleo perspective, I doubt our paleo ancestors insisted on sitting down for three square meals per day.
I don’t keep a diet log, but I’m sure I skip breakfast four or five times per week. I’m just not usually hungry when I wake up. If am hungry, I eat. That’s how I believe it’s supposed to work: eat when you’re hungry, don’t eat when you’re not.
Yes, fat people tend to skip breakfast more often than thin people, so there’s an association between skipping breakfast and being overweight. But fat people develop all kinds of habits and behaviors thin people don’t. If we’re going to assign cause and effect based on associations, well then, let’s give it a whirl: Joining a weight-loss program of any kind will make you fat. Shopping at Lane Bryant will make you fat. Wearing a loose shirt instead of going shirtless at the beach will make you fat. Being too afraid to ask out the pretty girl will make you fat. Sitting farther away from the table will make fat. Drinking diet sodas will make you fat. (I’m sure you’ve heard that one too.)
I’ve always suspected fat people are more likely to skip breakfast for the same reason they’re more likely to drink diet sodas: they’re often in dieting mode and hope that by skipping breakfast when they’re not hungry, they can avoid some calories. By contrast, naturally thin people who aren’t particularly health conscious will eat Pop-Tarts for breakfast and drink sugary sodas if they happen to like them. That’s how a couple of my naturally lean relatives ended up as type 2 diabetics – without ever getting fat.
Since the experts keep insisting skipping breakfast somehow packs on the pounds, what we’d like to see is a clinical study to confirm or negate that hypothesis – and now such a study has been done. Here are some quotes from an article published by the University of Alabama, which led the study:
Breakfast is often said to be the most important meal of the day. Nutritionists regularly suggest it be eaten each morning for many health benefits, including weight loss and weight maintenance. But new research led by the University of Alabama at Birmingham shows that, when comparing regularly consuming with regularly skipping breakfast, weight loss was not influenced.
The new study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, examined the impact of a recommendation to eat or skip breakfast, and the impact of switching breakfast eating habits for the study, on weight loss in adults trying to independently lose weight.
Study lead author Emily Dhurandhar, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Health Behavior, says it was important to test the common recommendation to eat breakfast to ensure this public health message was effective and not misleading about what will and will not help with their weight loss efforts.
“Previous studies have mostly demonstrated correlation, but not necessarily causation,” Dhurandhar said. “In contrast, we used a large, randomized controlled trial to examine whether or not breakfast recommendations have a causative effect on weight loss, with weight change as our primary outcome.”
This multisite, 16-week trial enrolled 309 otherwise healthy overweight and obese adults, 20-65 years old. Experimental groups were told to eat or skip breakfast. The control group, consisting of breakfast eaters and skippers, was simply provided healthy nutrition information that did not mention breakfast.
Dhurandhar says that there was no identifiable effect of treatment assignment on weight loss.
“Now that we know the general recommendation of ‘eat breakfast every day’ has no differential impact on weight loss, we can move forward with studying other techniques for improved effectiveness,” Dhurandhar said.
If you’d like to read the study abstract, you can find it here.
I believe there are two takeaways from this study: 1) skipping breakfast isn’t a cause of gaining weight, and 2) we shouldn’t draw cause-and-effect conclusions from observational studies, no matter how many times the same association shows up … because that “skipping breakfast is linked to obesity” association has shown up rather a lot.
The bottom line: if you’re not hungry in the morning, it’s okay to skip breakfast. Waiting until noon to eat your first meal isn’t going to somehow make you fat.