We’ve all heard it before: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” For decades, health authorities have linked a solid, healthy breakfast with better overall health and weight management.
The idea is that a balanced breakfast helps kick-start your metabolism after you’ve been “fasting” (and sleeping) all night, prevent blood sugar imbalances, reduce hunger, and make it more likely that you’ll eat less and stick to a healthy meal plan later in the day. All of these factors have given breakfast a reputation of helping you to lose weight fast.
But lately, the trend of intermittent fasting — eating an early dinner, and then not having a meal until after noon the next day; in other words, skipping breakfast! — has taken off and confused many people about what’s better for their health as well as weight loss efforts.
The big-breakfast approach works for many people, especially those who like to exercise in the morning and need to refuel with a healthy breakfast afterward. If you’re a “morning person” and someone who loves waking up for breakfast, chances are you can’t imagine being any other way. And if that’s the case, you’re in good company because there’s plenty of research that’s found breakfast, especially when breakfast is full of protein foods, can be beneficial and the best time of day for a big meal.
As researchers from one 2013 study published in the American Journal of Nutrition put it, “Breakfast leads to beneficial alterations in the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals that control food intake regulation.” (1) A large clinical review done by the Medical University of Warsaw Poland looked at 13 studies to investigate the impact of eating breakfast on weight gain and consistently found that people who regularly eat breakfast had better protection against becoming overweight or obese than breakfast-skippers. (2)
That being said, skipping breakfast is still common among children, adolescents and some adults, too, who skip breakfast as a common, unhealthy way to lose weight. And we know that many who do eat breakfast most days of the week might not choose the best things to eat.
The Benefits of Eating Breakfast
Feel like you’re not very hungry in the morning, but then you can’t stop eating come nighttime? Eating a bigger breakfast might work to solve the issue.
Skipping breakfast often leaves people overly hungry so they’re more likely to make poor decisions when it comes time to eat lunch. Eating a balanced, substantial breakfast can help you avoid eating too much at your next meal and snacking on unhealthy foods throughout the course of the day due to low energy, low blood sugar and low nutrient intake.
These are the primary reasons breakfast is said to be the best time to eat for weight loss. Fill up on the right foods upon waking up, especially kinds that are high in protein and high in healthy fats, and you might find you’re more prepared to work, move and make better decisions all day long — which can have big payoffs for keeping your weight in check.
A new study done by researchers at Tel Aviv University showed that dieters lost more weight when they ate the majority of their calories in the morning (roughly 700 calories), compared to those eating more throughout the day and at nighttime. While all participants followed a low 1,400-calorie diet, meal timing made a significant difference in terms in weight loss — the group eating 700 calories (or half of their daily calories) in the morning lost eight more pounds over a 12-week period than the group eating more of their calories during dinnertime. (3)
The group who ate half of their daily calories at breakfast lost more weight and more inches from their waists, showed greater improvements in glucose control and insulin sensitivity, and reported being more satisfied. The researchers found that the big-breakfast eaters had lower levels of ghrelin, our main hunger hormone.
Another 2011 study published in the Journal of Nutrition found that missing breakfast causes metabolic and hormonal impacts that can make it hard to choose healthier foods in the right portion later in the day. The study found that those who skipped breakfast had differences in responses to foods consumed later in the morning, higher appetites and an increase in energy intake compared to people who ate breakfast. (4)
Many other studies show the same and report that for most people who have lost weight and been able to keep it off, eating breakfast is part of what allows them to be successful long term. (5) It seems evident that breakfasts can boost your metabolism, just like high-protein snacks do.
These results might make it clear that breakfast is essential and should be a priority for everyone. But while breakfast helps many people keep their energy up, hunger in check and mood balanced, it might not be the answer for everyone.
The Flip Side: Evidence Showing Breakfast Doesn’t Need to Be Part of a Healthy Meal Plan
Overall, when we look at studies conducted over the past decade, we see very mixed results in terms of what constitutes ideal meal timing. Some studies show that people can maintain their weight more easily when they “front load” their day with bigger meals and more calories, but other studies show the opposite can work, too.
It’s true that eating breakfast is associated with lower body weight in many observational studies, and we know that public health authorities commonly recommend breakfast consumption to reduce the risk of unhealthy weight gain, but the effects of eating breakfast on changes in weight are still debatable. (6) Remember, just because something is observed as a correlation — in this case, eating breakfast and a healthier weight — doesn’t mean that one definitely causes the other.
For example, one study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that contrary to popular belief, there was no metabolic increase after eating breakfast, no suppression of appetite or calorie intake later in the day, and no difference in terms of weight gain or loss between people who ate breakfast and those who didn’t. While overall body mass, blood sugar levels and adiposity (fat levels) didn’t differ between breakfast-eaters and breakfast-skippers, those who eat breakfast did seem to naturally move around more throughout the morning. But this increase in physical activity didn’t have any effects on weight, cardiovascular health, insulin responsiveness or other markers. (7)
Another 2014 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found the same results: no difference in weight loss between a group of people eating breakfast every day versus those who skipped breakfast. (8) After 283 adults were split into two treatment groups (breakfast versus no breakfast), the results showed that “Treatment assignment did not have a significant effect on weight loss … contrary to widely espoused views, this had no discernable effect on weight loss in free-living adults who were attempting to lose weight.”
Could breakfast even be one one of the reasons people struggle to lose weight?
Another Approach to Consider: What About Skipping Breakfast Altogether and Fasting?
As mentioned above, an eating approach called intermittent fasting is getting a lot of attention of these days. What does it mean to fast intermittently? There are a few different approaches, but basically this involves either eating between a small window of time each day (usually eight hours) while abstaining from eating for the remainder of the day/night, or fasting every other day (meaning your calorie intake is high every other day, rotated with a very low calorie intake the other days).
This basically turns the old belief that “skipping breakfast leads to a slow metabolism and weight gain” on its head. There’s a good deal of evidence showing that people who skip breakfast altogether might not be at a greater risk for weight gain and might even have an advantage when it comes to weight loss and fat burning. Intermittent fasting is praised as a simple step for losing weight without being hungry or deprived.
The theory behind the meal timing of intermittent fasting is this:
Although it’s not appropriate for people with hypoglycemia, a condition characterized by an abnormally low level of blood sugar, the average person can experience improvements in blood sugar control by fasting for a 16-hour period each day — which for many people means skipping breakfast. While you restrict your eating to a specific eight-hour window of time, your insulin/leptin resistance improves, which means your weight can drop more easily.
Some studies show that health benefits of intermittent fasting include the ability to improve insulin/leptin sensitivity, balance blood sugar levels, burn fat for fuel more easily, improve blood pressure and cholesterol, reduce cravings, improve brain function, and lose weight or maintain a healthy weight without needing to count calories. (9, 10)
So despite the fact that we’ve always been told to never skip breakfast, many people who practice intermittent fasting and see great results are believers that this is the ultimate healthy meal plan that puts an end to worrying about weight gain without any deprivation involved.
That being said, despite the health benefits of fasting, it might not be a realistic option for many people. It likely comes down to the quality of food you consume when you do choose to eat, plus personal preference. Is it a good idea to fast in the morning and then eat junk throughout an eight-hour window? No, of course not.
But if you personally find that skipping breakfast helps you better manage your hunger levels, cravings and food intake while still allowing you to eat plenty of whole-nutrient foods later in the day, it might be a good option for you.
Personal Preference and Food Quality – the Real Keys
Knowing that there’s evidence supporting both sides of the big breakfast coin, it seems that personal preference and habits really play a big role in creating sustainable, healthy meal plans that allow people to lose weight and improve their health. Some people do best when eating a big breakfast (especially one with high-protein foods) because it prevents them from overeating later in the day and having food cravings, but others who have no appetite in the morning might not benefit from forcing themselves to eat — especially if they’re going to have a “standard American breakfast” that’s devoid of nutrients and filled with sugar and hydrogenated fats.
One important aspect of meal timing and following any number of healthy plans is that it really depends what and how much you eat, despite the timing. For example, when we look at the dieters who lost weight eating a bigger breakfast, we should also pay attention to their breakfast choices. The quality of the food is equally as, if not more, important as just eating breakfast alone.
This is due to the impact that different breakfasts can have on your metabolism and blood sugar levels. For example, an ideal breakfast filled with superfoods for weight loss — one that’s equal parts protein, healthy fats and fresh plant foods (especially vegetables) — stabilizes blood sugar levels and prevents you from overdoing it at lunchtime much better than a high-sugar breakfast of pancakes, syrup and fruit. So simply eating any breakfast is not enough — it needs to be the right type of breakfast filled with healthy fat-burning foods that sets you up for a successful day.
Here are some examples of a healthy breakfast:
In other words, it’s unlikely that a 700-calorie breakfast of donuts and sugary cereal will result in more weight loss than skipping breakfast and eating healthy foods throughout the day will.
What’s more important than the timing itself is that we eat the right foods in the right amounts. The focus should really be on getting the highest level of nutrients into your body and listening to your body’s true signals of hunger and fullness, as opposed to getting too wrapped up in meal timing and frequency. Things like your work schedule, the type of work you do and the time of your workouts can all impact when the best time to eat should be for you personally. So we need to consider individual needs when determining meal times and healthy meal plans.
Of course, the quantity of food matters too. Even healthy foods can be overeaten, so adjusting meal timing to see what works best for your appetite is key. Just like we all have differences in our internal circadian rhythms and varying preferences as to when we fall asleep and wake up every day, we differ in terms of when our hunger is at its peak, too.
The Bottom Line on What Type of Healthy Meal Plan Works Best:
To sum up the importance of meal timing, it seems to be a matter of personal preference when it comes to determining what constitutes a healthy meal plan. Breakfast seems to help many people eat a healthy diet overall, but on the other hand, some people do best skipping breakfast.
We are all different, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach that works best for everyone. Focus first on consuming high-quality foods and learning portion control — then consider if shifting your meal times around a bit could further benefit you.
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