We have been told many times that a good breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
The danger, it’s regularly claimed, is that skipping breakfast means we’ll get hungry later in the day, eat all the wrong things, and ultimately put on weight. But is it really true?
The answer would seem to be yes, if the results of a study published last week are to be believed.
Researchers from the German Diabetes Centre in Düsseldorf found that people who skipped breakfast were 33 percent more likely to have type 2 diabetes – the kind usually associated with being overweight – than those who didn’t.
This study adds to lots of others which have compared the health of people who skip breakfast with people who don’t. Almost all of these studies show that breakfast-eaters are slimmer and healthier.
But does this prove that eating breakfast makes you healthier? Well, actually it doesn’t. The fact is that people who regularly eat breakfast tend to have healthier habits overall. They smoke less, drink less and are normally more active.
To put it another way, it is possible that having a healthier lifestyle is what makes the difference, not the time you choose to start eating.
So what is the truth about breakfast?
Eat breakfast or don’t, it won’t make much difference
One of the best ways to test a health claim is to carry out a randomised controlled trial. In other words, you take two groups of people and randomly allocate them to two different approaches and see which one is better.
A recent study published in the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition – snappily called The Effectiveness Of Breakfast Recommendations On Weight Loss: A Randomised Controlled Trial – did just that.
Researchers got together 300 overweight volunteers, a mixture of ‘breakfast-eaters’ and ‘breakfast-skippers’.
They asked the groups to swap habits. The ‘skippers’ were asked to eat breakfast, while the ‘breakfast-eaters’ were asked to become skippers, for 16 weeks.
At the end of that period, both groups were weighed. The skippers who had made themselves eat breakfast had lost an average of 1.67 lb. Pretty impressive.
However, the ‘eaters’ who had skipped breakfast lost an almost identical amount, an average of 1.56 lb.
The researchers concluded that, contrary to what is widely believed, a recommendation to eat breakfast had no discernible effect on weight loss in free-living adults who were attempting to lose weight.
Other randomised studies carried out over the years have come to similar conclusions: that simply asking people to change their habits means they lose a bit of weight, regardless of whether or not they eat breakfast.
Another widely held belief is that eating breakfast helps to kick-start your metabolism, revving you up for the day ahead. But is this belief based in science?
It is certainly true that when you eat, it triggers the digestive process, which in turn means you burn more energy.
This is known as diet-induced thermogenesis. So, yes, breakfast does kick-start your metabolism. The trouble is that the effect is pretty small and wears off when the food is digested.
From the point of view of your metabolism over the course of the day, it really doesn’t matter whether you first eat at 8am or 1pm. What you eat is more important than when you eat. Eating a high-protein breakfast (such as eggs) requires more energy to digest it than eating cereal.
Eating a breakfast that is rich in protein, such as eggs, ham or fish, is also far more satiating and will keep you fuller for longer.