We’ve all heard the expression “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”. Another variation is “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper”. Our culture has a lot of esteem for the first meal of the day. Or at least that was case.
Lately, intermittent fasting programs are getting a lot of attention. Intermittent fasting is a way of eating that involves going a set amount of time (typically around 16-24 hours) without food and then breaking the fast with a condensed period for meal consumption. Some of these plans involve skipping breakfast and holding off on food until later in the day.
After years of listening to fitness experts talk about eating every two or three hours to “stoke the metabolic fire” it’s been refreshing to hear an alternative viewpoint. There never was much evidence to support the widely promoted idea that eating six small meals a day was the key to weight loss.
Now the tide appears to be moving in the other direction. Sharply.
Based on the Google Trends graph above it seems the interest in skipping meals is at an all-time high. Similar to the now busted meal frequency myth, there is a lot of anecdotal evidence but little concrete research to back up the proposed benefits of intermittent fasting. Many studies examining the effects of fasting are with rodents, which have fundamentally different metabolisms from humans. Fasting studies with humans have produced conflicting results
When looking specifically at skipping breakfast, the picture gets even cloudier. One recent study out of Cornell University found that people who skipped breakfast were hungrier during the day, but ultimately ate less total calories than the group that ate breakfast. This goes against the conventional belief that skipping breakfast leads to over-eating later in the day. On the other side of the argument, a new study out of Harvard showed that men who skipped breakfast were 27% more likely to experience a heart attack or die of coronary artery disease.
So holding off on breakfast may be a way to lose weight if you do in fact end up eating fewer calories in total for the day. Previous research has also shown that just reducing the amount of food you eat at breakfast without skipping the meal also leads to lower calorie intake during the day. However, if you regularly skip breakfast there’s the chance you may be putting your health at risk in the long-term.
Studies on nutrition are hard to conduct because of the many variables involved. So it’s not unusual to see research published that does more to confuse the issue than it does to clarify it.
The most confusing results came from a study showing that breakfast eaters lost more weight when they started skipping breakfast, but people who were already skipping breakfast lost more weight when they started eating breakfast!
It will be a long time before science can give us a clear answer on whether there are any benefits to not eating in the morning. With the increasing popularity of intermittent fasting I’m sure there will be plenty of fly-by-night nutrition experts claiming that the secret to weight loss is dropping breakfast from your daily meals.
I’ve been rather conflicted about fasting ever since I started looking into it. I’m happy to see that the six-meals-a-day talk has mostly disappeared. I’ve never seen much sense in the three-meals-a-day convention that industrial society brought us. I’ve mentioned before about my occasional habit of not eating lunch.
Now, the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, where eating less frequently has replaced much of the frequent eating, metabolic fire talk.
It’s good that people are questioning our ingrained ideas about when and how we should eat to better our health. Moving away from a rigid timing for our meals could help us stop being OCD about the way we eat.
I don’t feel however that all the conflicting diet advice from people who are so certain about what is best is doing much to help people establish a better relationship with food and eating in the long-term. Nor do I think it’s helping in any way with our obesity issue, which I view more as a cultural problem than a “what time did you eat your first meal of the day?” problem.
I lean toward believing that eating breakfast is better than skipping it. Most of the time anyway. This is what other animals do and it makes sense that the first thing our bodies would want after sleeping (a.k.a. fasting) for eight hours would be to get food in our system. The preliminary evidence suggests that not eating upon waking stresses the bodies, which if done repeatedly might have ill effects.
But on the other hand a certain amount of stress is good for us. The benefits of exercise are proof of that. Dr. Eric Rimm, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, noted that:
If someone is trying to lose weight, then skipping a few meals (lunch may be better than breakfast) occasionally might not be a bad idea for part of a weight loss plan
My guess is that varying your diet, both in the types of food you eat and the times you eat, will yield greater benefits than adhering to any strict regimen of meal planning. So far there’s no convincing proof that intermittent fasting is a better at helping you lose weight than other patterns of eating.
All diets will lead to weight loss as long as you are restricting calories. That’s been proven over and over again.
Skipping breakfast is not going to “unlock the secret” to fat burning. If it helps you eat less total calories during the day then certainly it can help you lose weight.
Establishing a good relationship with food means trusting yourself to eat when you are hungry, and being able to stop when you are full. It’s important to recognize the skipping a meal every once in a while is probably a healthy thing to do, but being too strict about meal planning ultimately will do more harm than good.