Eating Breakfast May Not Be Best for Weight Loss
Does eating breakfast help you lose weight?

A 2019 review published in the BMJ finds there is no good evidence to support the idea that eating breakfast promotes weight loss, or that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain.

Eating Breakfast May Not Be Best for Weight Loss

By the wlr team

A new systematic review1 published in the British Medical journal at the end of January 2019 finds there is no good evidence to support the idea that eating breakfast promotes weight loss, or that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain.

In fact, the findings show that daily calorie intake was higher in people eating breakfast and that skipping breakfast does not cause greater appetite later in the day.

Previous studies have suggested that eating breakfast is linked with maintaining a healthy weight, but these findings have been observational and possibly reflect an individual's wider healthy lifestyle and food choices.

The researchers, from Monash University in Melbourne, say that their review questions the popular recommendation that eating breakfast can help with weight control. Although they do point out that their findings should be interpreted with caution since the quality of studies they found to use in their analysis was low.

Writing in an editorial2 in the same issue, Tom Mobberley, UK editor of the BMJ, said:

“The lack of high quality evidence in this area is embarrassing, especially when dieting is a multibillion pound industry, when meta-analyses of weight loss drugs include dozens of trials, and when so many guidelines recommend eating breakfast as a way to lose weight.”

At the time of writing wlr found the NHS Eatwell Guide positively pushing breakfast3 (even if you don't really want to eat it) and stating "Research suggests people who eat breakfast are slimmer".

The study

The research team analysed the effect of regularly eating breakfast on weight change and daily energy intake, based on evidence from 13 randomised controlled trials, mainly in the US and UK, from the last 28 years.

Several trials focused on the relationship between eating or skipping breakfast and changes in body weight, while others looked at the effect of breakfast on daily calorie intake.

Participants included habitual and non-habitual breakfast eaters, or both, at a range of body weights who were monitored between 24 hours and 16 weeks.

The researchers found that total daily calorie intake was higher in groups who ate breakfast compared with those who skipped it (an average of 260 more calories consumed in a day) regardless of their usual breakfast habits.

A subset of the results (7 trials which measured for changes in weight) showed that those who skipped breakfast were on average 0.44 kg (1lb) lighter after a mean follow up of 7 weeks.

The effect of breakfast on weight did not differ between normal weight and overweight people.

And despite common belief, skipping breakfast was not linked to people feeling hungrier in the afternoon - or to differences in energy expenditure.

The authors highlight that because of the varying quality of the studies included, the findings should be interpreted with caution. However, they argue that "currently, the available evidence does not support modifying diets in adults to include the consumption of breakfast as a good strategy to lose weight."

"Although eating breakfast regularly could have other important effects, caution is needed when recommending breakfast for weight loss in adults, as it may have the opposite effect," they conclude.

Commenting on the study In a BMJ opinion blog post4, Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King's College London, said:

"No 'one size fits all,' and prescriptive slow moving diet guidelines filled with erroneous information look increasingly counterproductive and detract from important health messages. While waiting for guidelines to change, no harm can be done in trying out your own personal experiments in skipping breakfast," he concludes.

Previous Research is Scrambled

It seems that many breakfast researchers and the publications who cite that research take positive effects shown for appetite control, hunger hormones and other health signals and infer that therefore breakfast must be a good thing for weight control.

It's pretty ingrained, amongst health advisers, writers and the general public, that eating breakfast is good for you: not many people don't 'know' that 'breakfast is the most important meal of the day'.

An article in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition5 used research on breakfast eating to highlight how erroneous inferences can creep in.

For example, how study results indicating that eating breakfast has a positive effect on satiety can lead to the inference that it must be good for helping people to lose weight.

Our Conclusion

Advice to eat breakfast as a weight loss strategy needs rethinking and, where given, should reflect the current situation:

  • There is a lack of evidence to show that eating breakfast helps with weight loss
  • Some evidence suggests that, for non-habitual breakfast eaters at least, eating breakfast can have the effect of increasing daily calorie intake

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Sources & References

  1. Effect of breakfast on weight and energy intake: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials BMJ
  2. Unscrambling the evidence for breakfast BMJ
  3. Healthy breakfasts (for people who hate breakfast) NHS Eatwell Guide
  4. Tim Spector: Breakfast—the most important meal of the day? BMJ
  5. Belief beyond the evidence: using the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity to show 2 practices that distort scientific evidence American Journal of Clinical nutrition
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