The debate about breakfast’s role in health has become somewhat tedious in recent years. Researchers trying to determine whether it’s really the most important meal of the day have mostly found that it’s not—in fact, skipping the meal doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of difference, at least if weight loss is the variable of interest. (And it may not be; more on this later.) To this end, a new study in the BMJ finds that when it comes to weight loss, if we have a strong predilection for one or the other, it likely makes no difference whether we skip breakfast or partake.
The researchers, from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, looked at data from 13 past studies—all randomized trials—on skipping breakfast and weight loss. They found that when it came to weight loss, there was no significant difference in people assigned to skip breakfast and those assigned to eat it. In fact, people who ate breakfast consumed slightly more calories throughout the day. But because the studies may have had issues with bias or overall quality, the authors say the findings should interpreted with caution. In any case, breakfast should not be recommended across the board for people trying to lose weight.
“This study suggests that the addition of breakfast might not be a good strategy for weight loss, regardless of established breakfast habit,” write the authors, who funnily disclose their own varied personal breakfast preferences. “Caution is needed when recommending breakfast for weight loss in adults, as it could have the opposite effect.”
Earlier work has of course suggested this, as the new one is a meta-analysis, and these studies have generally been reported as they’ve come out, some of them here. A study a few years ago found that there were no huge differences between breakfast eaters and breakfast skippers, metabolically speaking. And another study, in which the researchers assigned people to either eat breakfast or skip it, found no significant differences in weight loss between the two groups. Other research has corroborated the finding as well.
However, the one caveat is that some work has suggested that skipping breakfast is linked to poorer heart health. A large study in 2013, following nearly 27,000 male healthcare workers over 16 years, showed that skipping breakfast was linked to a 27% increased risk of coronary heart disease, even when the researchers controlled for just about every other variable that might influence the relationship. The reason may be because people make up for the “lost” calories in unhealthy ways later in the day—but there may be other things going on, too. Skipping breakfast may, at least in some people, put the body into a state of stress, which could itself affect metabolism and cardiovascular health.
Still, researcher Tim Spector of King’s College London, the author of an accompanying editorial to the new study, points out that everyone is different, and people should go with what feels right to them. We all, he says, have different genes, microbiomes (gut bacteria) that may have different “preferences” themselves, and personal inclinations. So there’s no single prescription for everyone who wants to keep a healthy weight or lose some, and it’s silly to think there might be.
“Some people are programmed to prefer eating food earlier in the day and others later,” Spector writes, “which might suit our unique personal metabolism. No ‘one size fits all,’ and prescriptive slow moving diet guidelines filled with erroneous information look increasingly counterproductive and detract from important health messages.”
It should be pointed out that when someone, usually an elderly relative says, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day,” it’s not usually weight loss they’re talking about. It’s more likely about fortification before a long morning at school, travel, or even play—and there may be a lot of value to this, as other studies have suggested that breakfast is linked to better attention and academic performance in schoolkids. So in that regard, the old adage may be right.
But for grownups, weight loss or not, it’s more likely a matter of what feels right to you. So the best advice for us might be that breakfast is the most important meal of the day if it’s important to you.