Doing Without Breakfast?

I’ve never eaten breakfast regularly, for which I’m criticized a lot by family and friends. I should lose about 20 pounds. Everyone insists that you need to eat breakfast for weight control. Is that true?

– November 14, 2013

You’ve raised an interesting question, and your friends and family may be surprised by the answer. New research suggests that eating breakfast isn’t really important for weight control and makes the point that many previous studies misinterpreted the scientific data on this subject. Some researchers may have been misled by “confirmation bias,” meaning that they presumed breakfast to be key to weight control and therefore looked for evidence to support their view.

Conventional wisdom holds that if you skip breakfast, you’ll be ravenous by lunchtime and eat much more than you otherwise would. However, a study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham published online on September 4, 2013 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggests that many earlier studies of the importance of eating breakfast for weight control have been misconstrued by later researchers. The Alabama team found that skipping breakfast has little to do with weight control and that people who don’t eat breakfast do not end up consuming more calories later in the day to make up for what they missed first thing in the morning.

The only long-term study that looked at the effect on weight gain of skipping breakfast took place in 1992 at Vanderbilt University. Researchers divided a group of 52 “moderately obese” women into two groups. Those who habitually skipped breakfast were put on a plan that included a daily morning meal. Another group of participants who were accustomed to eating breakfast were asked to do without it for the 12-week length of the study. The upshot? The participants who left to their own devices wouldn’t eat breakfast, but did during the study, lost about 17 pounds each. The habitual breakfast eaters who were asked to skip the morning meal lost an average of 20 pounds each. Both groups were limited to the same number of daily calories.

The Alabama researchers found about 50 citations of the Vanderbilt data in the medical literature and reported that 62 percent of these studies inaccurately cited the findings and were biased in favor of the notion that eating breakfast is key to weight control.

Meanwhile, a study from Cornell University published on July 2, 2013 in the journal Physiology and Behavior found that people who skip breakfast don’t eat enough calories later in the day to make up for the missing the morning meal. “If you skip breakfast, you may be hungrier, but you won’t eat enough calories to make up for the lost breakfast,” senior study author David Levitsky said in a Cornell press release. For this study, his team recruited a group of volunteers, half of whom regularly ate breakfast and half who regularly skipped it. Observing how much food the volunteers ate the rest of the day, the investigators found that the breakfast skippers didn’t eat more at lunch or at any other “eating occasion” later in the day. They consumed a daily average of 408 fewer calories than the volunteers who did eat breakfast. The researchers concluded that skipping breakfast isn’t essential for weight control and may, in fact, be a “reasonable way” to achieve weight loss.

Andrew Weil, M.D.

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