Is breakfast best?

I’m a breakfast eater. I haven’t always been a breakfast eater, though. Like many teenagers, I went through a good spell of going to school on an empty stomach, and I’ve practiced intermittent fasting (IF), well, intermittently over the last several years.

But for quite some time, I’ve been a little cagey about passing along the “official” recommendation that breakfast was the most important meal of the day, particularly for those of us who want to lose weight or maintain our weight. My feelings were partially based on personal experience. I know that it’s possible to skip breakfast and not be ready to eat the paint off the walls by lunchtime. Heck, when I was doing IF, I would fast from dinner to dinner (so skipping breakfast and lunch). Hunger pangs would come and go through the day, in waves, but they were never overwhelming, and while I ate a slightly bigger dinner than I did on non-IF days, I wasn’t ravenous.*
My hesitancy to make blanket statements about “starting the day with a good breakfast” increased in light of a growing body of research suggesting that people who skip breakfast generally don’t “make up” those calories later in the day (i.e., they might eat a bigger lunch, but not enough to compensate for the calories they didn’t eat at breakfast). Even though I was part of the National Weight Control Registry for a few years,** and was quite familiar with the oft-repeated bit of NWCR data that eating breakfast is associated with weight loss and maintaining that loss, I was not comfortable with the accompanying assumption that eating breakfast lead to successful weight loss. Remember, association is not causation! 
My trepidations were validated last week with publication of the article “Belief beyond the evidence: using the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity to show 2 practices that distort scientific evidence” in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. The article explored the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity (PEBO). One of the big problems in research papers that invoked PEBO was authors’ improper use of causal language when referring to their own research or the research of others. Remember, association is not causation! Just because a study shows that breakfast eaters are less likely to be obese or more likely to lose weight does not mean it’s the eating of breakfast that caused those things.

I do think breakfast is a good idea for some individuals, primarily if they:

  • Find themselves inhaling break room doughnuts by 10 a.m.
  • Realize that they are so hungry at lunch that they are making less-healthy food choices than if they were not quite so ravenous.
  • Feel like they function better on days they eat breakfast.
  • Need to eat breakfast for medical reasons, such as needing to take morning medications with food.

I’m all for personal experimentation (when the experiment in question is safe, of course). If you’ve never been a breakfast eater, but think you might actually do better with some food in the morning, try it out. If you’ve always forced yourself to eat breakfast, even though you hate eating in the morning, try skipping breakfast and see how you feel.

For those of us who do eat breakfast, I wholeheartedly encourage eating a healthy breakfast. Regularly starting the day with pastries isn’t good for the body, and will probably leave you with brain fog, too. I encourage experimenting with healthy breakfast foods to find the right ratio of carbohydrates-protein-fat for you. For example, if I don’t have a decent amount of protein with breakfast, I get hungry within two hours. However, I know people who just fine with a higher-carbohydrate breakfast. Vive la difference!

The AJCN article I linked to above isn’t freely accessible to the public, beyond the abstract, so if you want to read more I highly recommend yesterday’s excellent New York Times article, ‘Myths Surround Breakfast and Weight.” It gets more into the nitty gritty of the issue.

* I’m not necessarily endorsing IF, nor am I dissing it. It was a weight loss/maintenance tool that worked for me for a few years, but I stopped when I started grad school because I felt it was no longer working for me. I felt cognitively impaired by not eating breakfast, which is oddly similar to how I felt in my second period French class when I was skipping breakfast in high school. It’s a tool I would consider using again if it felt right for me.
**I stopped filling out the NWCR annual surveys this year, because my irritation at trying to recall a year’s worth of eating finally got the better of me, especially because my habits changed constantly as my schedule did. I felt that the scope of their questions could not accurately capture what occurred during that year in terms of both eating habits and weight fluctuations.