“I don’t have time for breakfast.”
“Skipping breakfast promotes more fat loss.”
“I like to intermittent fast for longevity.”
“Breakfast is a modern day concept.”
Skipping breakfast has become quite popular among people today despite being told that it is the most important meal of the day.
One reason people skip breakfast has to do with convenience. Mornings can be quite busy for people, especially if you are a parent. If you think it is hard to get yourself up and out the door on time, try getting one or two (or more) kids ready and out the door as well. Skipping breakfast is quite a convenient way to save some time when mornings are hectic.
In addition to the convenience factor, there is a lot of recent interest in intermittent fasting, time restricted eating, and becoming “fat adapted”, all of which tend to advocate skipping breakfast in the name of better health, longevity and weight loss.
When we look at the traditional American breakfast, It is dominated by processed carbohydrates. Bagels, toast, pancakes, muffins, cereals covered in sugar, fruit juices, are staples in the breakfast food category. Oh and don’t forget the giant caffeinated drink full of added sugar in it and whip cream on top that we call coffee.
The traditional American breakfast is not the picture of health, lots of sugar, no vegetables, little to no protein, and lots of hyper-palatable foods. It is no wonder why when people who eat these breakfast foods are hungry a few hours later and experience an “energy crash”.
If I had a client and their choice was to eat the traditional American breakfast or skip it all together, I would have them skip it 100% of the time.
Quick aside: Whenever I travel to Europe I love the breakfasts at the hotel because the staple European breakfast foods consist of meats, fish, vegetables, and fruit. I also get a chuckle when they then have the “American breakfast” consisting of pancakes, waffles, and sausage.
On the other hand if your breakfast contains eggs, some smoked salmon, veggies, a bowl of fruit and a cup of black coffee, I would say that is a breakfast that could set you up for success for the rest of the day.
My personal opinion is one thing, but what does the research say about eating breakfast?
For one, when skipping breakfast people tend to eat less calories overall throughout the rest of the day. If you are trying to lose weight skipping breakfast can make creating a caloric deficit quite easy.
However when calories are equated between breakfast skippers and non-breakfast skippers some studies show there is not much of a difference in weight loss .
What we can say for sure if that when skipping breakfast you are going to rely more on burning body fat to fuel your energy demands . If you’re interested in losing body fat, skipping breakfast can be a great way to increase the amount of time your body is using its own energy stores to fuel its energy needs. However, you should also keep in mind that if you don’t also stay in a caloric deficit it won’t make any difference from a fat loss perspective.
Skipping breakfast can have some interesting effects on blood sugar control. Initially when skipping breakfast blood sugar control looks really good when compared to someone eating breakfast. This makes sense as you are not eating anything. The question becomes is your blood sugar control better or worse throughout the rest of the day if you skip breakfast?
If you skip breakfast but are active the rest of the day, blood sugar control tends to be the same as someone who eats breakfast. However, once someone skipping breakfast becomes sedentary blood sugar control tends to be worse than someone who eats breakfast.
In one study done on people who skipped breakfast and those that didn’t, blood sugar control was pretty much the same (outside of breakfast) in free living conditions. But once both groups were put in a metabolic chamber on day 6 of the study (see the graphs below) the blood sugar control of the breakfast skippers was worse over the course of 24hrs on average than those that ate breakfast. Researchers theorized it has to do with the lack of movement of being in the metabolic chamber.
Other studies have shown that when skipping breakfast blood sugar control after lunch can be far worse than when eating breakfast. You can see this in the Day 1 graph above. Also notice that Day 2-5 showed no difference in blood sugar control at lunch or dinner. This suggests there could be an adaptive mechanism at play, aka once the body gets used to skipping breakfast it gets better at controlling the blood sugar response to lunch and dinner.
If skipping breakfast makes you ravenous later in the day when you finally eat then that can cause you to eat more calories overall. If weight loss is your goal, that is not a good thing at all. Many studies have shown that consuming breakfast often leads to less hunger later on in the day .
Studies have also shown that when consuming a majority of your calories for breakfast increases the amount of calories you burn after consuming the meal. In one study researchers gave participants 70% of their calories for breakfast and compared how many calories are burnt after the meal to consuming 70% of their calories at dinner. When eating 70% of their calories for breakfast, participants burned 2.5 times more calories when compared to the same amount at dinner . This COULD lead to an overall increase in total daily energy expenditure however that was not reported in the study so we are not entirely sure. If eating breakfast does lead to you burning more calories overall throughout the day, it might be a significant amount so whether this is an actual benefit to eating breakfast is hard to say.
Depending on your perception of skipping breakfast, it can also cause some unneeded stress. Not eating can send signals to your body that food is scarce and ancestrally that is not a good thing. If you have several other stressors occurring at the same time, like many people do today, skipping breakfast is just adding to your overall stress bucket. Unlike some of the other stressors in your life, eating breakfast is completely within your control (at least for most of Western society), so when I have a client who has a lot of stress in their life and is skipping breakfast, eating breakfast can be an easy way to reduce stress.
Eating breakfast may also help in training your circadian rhythm, aka your sleep/wake cycle. Our bodies expect to be eating a majority of our food while it is light out and little to no food once the sun sets. This is one reason researchers theorize that we see higher energy expenditure when participants ate a majority of their calories at breakfast. The other side effect of eating a majority of your calories at breakfast is that it could help set you up for a better night’s sleep. If you skip breakfast and eat a big meal at dinner your digestive system is going to need to work harder to digest all that food and that might affect your sleep quality . Bad sleep can then lead to poor health as I talk about in this blog post.
Whenever I have a client who is skipping breakfast I immediately look at their total caloric requirements and protein goal and if they are reaching them or not. I talk a lot about the importance of protein no matter what your goal is. If you are having a hard time meeting your protein goal and skipping breakfast the first thing I suggest you do is eat a protein heavy breakfast. However this is often a hard thing for many people to do because most “breakfast” foods do not contain a lot of protein. In fact one study found that people get less than 20% of the protein at breakfast!
To combat this I encourage people to think “outside the box” when it comes to breakfast. Don’t limit yourself to things like eggs, bacon, and sausage. Steak, fish, chicken all make great breakfast foods. For more tips on getting more protein in your diet you can read this blog post.
It is not only protein that matters but total calories as well. Hard charging athletes often fall into the trap of skipping breakfast to optimize their ability to burn fat. At the same time they need to consume 3000-5000 calories a day. It then becomes nearly impossible for them to eat that amount in 2 meals, so they end up in a chronic caloric deficit and over time can suffer from the effects of low energy availability and relative energy deficiency in sport.
It depends….there I said it….I can’t answer that question.
I know you were hoping I would give you a straightforward answer, sorry to disappoint.
Unfortunately straightforward answers are rare when it comes to nutrition because context and goals are so important.
If your goal is weight loss and skipping breakfast allows you to more easily maintain a caloric deficit, then it might be a great approach for you. If on the other hand skipping breakfast causes you to get so hungry that you lose control and eat everything in sight, it’s a terrible idea.
If you are sedentary and skipping breakfast sends your blood sugar sky high at lunch or dinner that is no good, however if you are fairly active you are probably fine and dont need to worry about it.
If eating breakfast makes you feel less hungry throughout the day and less likely to go digging through the freezer for the ice cream, eat breakfast.
If you need to consume 4000 calories a day because you are an athlete, good luck doing that without eating breakfast.
As you can see the answer to the question of skipping breakfast really depends on you. You need to experiment for yourself to find what works for you, this matters more than what any study, “influencer”, or parent says about it. I have worked with clients that prefer to skip breakfast and others that don’t, whatever you decide to do, it will not stop you from reaching your goals as long as it works for you.
Our ancestors probably ate in the morning and sometimes didn’t. The one thing I know for sure is that if you consume breakfast going against the grain and making your breakfast protein dense, with lots of fresh vegetables and other whole foods is going to benefit everyone. Stay away from all the processed breakfast foods and high sugar drinks.
Regardless of what you choose to do when it comes to breakfast, a healthy person should be able to do the opposite when the time comes. If you constantly skip breakfast you should be able to go out and eat breakfast without feeling like garbage if your kids really want you to. Similarly if you always eat breakfast but you need to skip breakfast due to an early flight you have to catch, that shouldn’t be hard to do. That is a sign of a truly metabolically healthy person.
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