“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
This is easily a phrase that all of us have heard at some point in our lives. It’s a unanimous agreement on how we should start the day, but the research, interestingly enough, shows a lot of inconsistent evidence about it. So the question remains – does this statement truly have merit? Does breakfast (and the point of not skipping it) really hold a place in weight control and overall health?
Before I dive into this topic some more, I do want to mention the importance of context and individual variability. Some individuals feel fine if they hold off on breakfast a bit longer (i.e., those who are dieting and/or practicing IF for specific reasons, those who may have had a heavy meal the night prior and are waiting for some hunger to kick in, or even those who prefer training fasted). Plenty of people feel no difference in this matter – me actually being one of them a few years ago. (*gasp*) Crazy, I know.
However, the topic of skipping breakfast and/or making a point to have breakfast has been impactful enough on people to a point where we do have a lot of studies that explore the relationship between skipping breakfast and the prevalence of overweight/obesity. Not to mention other markers like hunger control, satiety, and total energy balance. The issue lies in the inconsistent information they’ve provided us, though.
Results may be conflicting, but we’re still able to form associations based on the evidence. Reviews and meta-analyses do a great job here at allowing us to formulate associations between skipping breakfast and the risk of overweight/obesity. Additionally, as someone who has dieted before and is a lifestyle and competition prep coach, I have seen some of these relationships at play firsthand which is pretty interesting to watch and tinker with client to client.
The Impact of Lifestyle + Behavioral Habits
We know that obesity is multifactorial and that it’s especially influenced by our energy balance and dietary habits, but lifestyle and behavioral habits can impact so many other parts of our day and how we wind up approaching our meals.
Let’s use sleep as a quick example of this point. Yes, calories in versus calories out is a foundational principle we want to look at first, but research shows us that a lack of sleep can be just as detrimental to our dietary habits. Sleep restriction can influence our judgement; it can cause us to experience increased hunger and cravings (especially during those sleep-restricted hours late in the day), which ultimately leads individuals to gain more weight than their well-slept counterparts. (2)
The habit of skipping breakfast is no different here. As a coach, I’ve seen this play out plenty of times where skipping meals or fasting for the purpose of “having more for later” spurs on even more hunger and cravings for those later meals. This can be both physical and psychological (think true hunger versus restriction-overeating cycles).
Back to Breakfast
This review does a good job of shedding more light on what available studies have in common, thus allowing us to get a clearer picture of this association. Among 554 studies that went through a full-text review, 45 studies (36 cross-sectional and 9 cohort) between 2003 and 2019 were included in this meta-analysis.
The chosen studies examined subjects of different age groups and most of the studies included both males and females (excluding 1 which included females only). Some of the studies’ definitions of overweight and obesity varied – some coming from the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Obesity Task Force definition, and the CDC growth charts. A portion of the studies also chose to acknowledge the importance of other, relevant confounding factors that also contribute to the multi-factorial nature of obesity (socioeconomic, environmental, education, physical activity, etc.).
This systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort and cross-sectional studies sought to better understand weight and weight change with consuming or skipping breakfast and those findings show us that skipping breakfast increases the risk of overweight/obesity as well as abdominal obesity. In addition to this, there were no significant differences in these results among the varying age groups and populations, gender, regions, and economic environments that were examined. This suggests that this issue, the relationship between skipping breakfast and overweight/obesity, is quite extensive.
As with any study, results need to be interpreted with caution, though. None of this is saying that breakfast directly influences weight loss or weight gain (refer to our other articles and podcasts for more info!); however, these studies have given us more insight into the underlying lifestyle and dietary habits that may be at play in these circumstances. It makes us think about what behaviors are present in those who choose to skip breakfast (and thus the results of those behaviors) that we need to look at more closely when examining this positive association between skipping breakfast and the risk of overweight/obesity.
Considerations: What might be happening here?
Through the research we have available as well as personal anecdotes from a coaching perspective, there are a couple of things that may be influencing negative weight changes in those who choose to skip breakfast compared to those who partake in it.
Changes in appetite and satiety:
We all know not to go grocery shopping when hungry and the same idea applies to when we enter meals. Skipping meals and/or going into meals starving is a recipe for overeating. The research shows us this as well; skipping breakfast is associated with decreased satiety, which can result in overeating for many. In contrast, eating breakfast has been shown to be useful in regulating appetite for the remainder of the day.
Calories and compensatory behaviors:
This point is closely tied into hunger and satiety in that, when we go into a meal starving or put off meals, we tend to have compensatory eating behaviors when we break that period of fasting (i.e., subconsciously eating more calories later in the day). Eating breakfast has also been shown to improve blood sugar response and insulin sensitivity in the next meal.
Lack of knowledge and/or structure:
Last but not least, plenty of dieters can get caught up with the latest dieting fads and buzz words, like fasting, for example. Without any background knowledge or understanding on why some of those changes may be helpful for people (i.e., shortening feeding windows in their day, less meals eaten = overall less total calories consumed), it makes sense how people can follow mealtime/diet suggestions without really knowing the impact that it can have on their approach to the rest of the day, their hunger and satiety, and subsequent eating behaviors. All of this is individual in how people will feel of course, but again, this is such a common topic of conversation that it’s clearly needing more attention and understanding from dieters.
Additionally, there will always be some individuals who simply don’t plan their days out as much as they may need to. Those who skip breakfast or don’t think about planning their meals can fall into this category. Whether some individuals are on-the-go during the work week, or just haven’t gotten a handle on their goals and how to attack them, this is a common behavior trait in those who may just need to plan a little more ahead in their week. Having staple meals ready to go, planning out your day ahead of time, setting up consistent days in order to make hunger more predictable, and bulk cooking some good options for the week are good examples of what we do to help combat situations that lead us to overeat.
So, all in all, I won’t say breakfast is the most important meal of the day (I mean, it still is to me). There are a lot of behavioral and dietary habits, among outside factors that contribute to the rise in overweight/obesity, but nonetheless there is a clear relationship between skipping breakfast and the propensity to overeat, decreased satiety, and the risk of overweight/obesity that should be paid close attention to in case any of these common habits mentioned above apply closely to you and what you struggle with most.
- Ma, X., Chen, Q., Pu, Y., et al. Skipping breakfast is associated with overweight and obesity: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Research and Clinical Practice. 2020; 14: 1-8.
- Spaeth, A.M., Dinges, D.F., Goel, N. Effects of experimental sleep restriction on weight gain, caloric intake, and meal timing in healthy adults. SLEEP. 2013; 36(7): 981-990.