Morning Meals and Weight Gain: Are Government Breakfast Guidelines Wrong?

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A recent study contradicts conventional wisdom that eating breakfast will help you lose weight. (Photo: Getty Images)

Scientists have said for years that skipping breakfast can actually make you gain weight. But a recent study has called the whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” mantra — and the government’s recommendations around it — into question.

When Columbia University researchers compared the effects of eating a high-fiber breakfast (oatmeal), a breakfast with minimal fiber (frosted corn flakes), and no breakfast on 36 overweight participants over four weeks, they found that people who skipped breakfast lost weight, while the other two groups did not.

“In overweight individuals, skipping breakfast daily for four weeks leads to a reduction in body weight,” researchers stated in the study. They proposed that, though skipping breakfast may cause you to eat more later in the day, your body is unable to make up for the calories from the missing meal.

Those findings contradict conventional wisdom, which, of course, is also backed by research. A study of more than 20,000 U.S. men ages 46 to 81 published in the journal Obesity in 2007 discovered that those who ate breakfast were less likely to gain weight over time than those who skipped breakfast.

That study, along with several others, was cited by the U.S. Dietary Guidelines advisory committee in 2010 to support the idea that skipping breakfast causes weight gain. The guidelines, which apply from 2010 through fall of this year, state:

Eat a nutrient-dense breakfast. Not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight, especially among children and adolescents. Consuming breakfast also has been associated with weight loss and weight loss maintenance, as well as improved nutrient intake.

The Dietary Guidelines are important because they are considered the authority on diet in the U.S. and also influence school lunches and other government-subsidized dietary programs.

Related: Cholesterol, Fat & Salt Making Comeback, But Eating Right at Core of New Dietary Guidelines

However, the 2007 research was an observational study, i.e., scientists just observed the study participants rather than assigning them to treatment and control groups.

The problem with observational studies, scientists say, is that they’re more open to misinterpretation of the findings. In this particular study, it’s possible that men who are more likely to skip breakfast also share some other trait that makes them more likely to gain weight, like a sedentary lifestyle.

Scientists will adjust their findings based on what they know — a person’s alcohol consumption, whether they smoke, their exercise habits, etc. — but those adjustments aren’t precise and can leave out other unknown factors that could also influence the data.

The Columbia study — which found that skipping breakfast helps lose weight — though small, was a randomized, controlled trial, which is widely considered to be the gold standard of scientific research for its exacting results (researchers can control literally every aspect of the experiment).

“It’s so difficult to do these dietary studies,” Diane McKay, assistant professor and director of the graduate certificate program at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, tells Yahoo Health.

Related: Is It Healthier to Skip Breakfast or Just Eat a Doughnut?

She says observational studies are typically the go-to method for dietary studies because they’re easier to do, but admittedly have their issues.

Registered dietitian nutritionist Sonya Angelone, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, tells Yahoo Health that observational studies are also limited because they rely on the participants’ feedback rather than lab results.

But the latest research that essentially says it’s OK to skip breakfast is flawed too, McKay says. That study had a small sample size and researchers didn’t track what else the participants ate throughout the day — only what they had for breakfast — or their exercise habits. (Researchers mentioned these in the study as possible limitations.)

This study also followed participants for only four weeks, which McKay says is too short of a time for this type of work. “People can be good for four weeks,” she says, noting that most obesity and dietary researchers “don’t care” about studies that are conducted for less than 18 months.

There is history behind the notion that breakfast is important.

The concept reportedly began in 1917 in an issue of Good Health, the self-proclaimed “oldest health magazine in the world,” which was coincidentally (or not) edited by John Harvey Kellogg of breakfast cereal fame.

“[I]n many ways, the breakfast is the most important meal of the day, because it is the meal that gets the day started,” one article said. “And above all, it should be made up of easily digested foods, and balanced in such a way that the various food elements are present in the right proportions.”

Related: The Biggest Breakfast Mistake You’re Probably Making

But the meal was once associated with gluttony — until about the 17th century — the Huffington Post reports. Eventually cereal, bacon, and eggs came into the mix and never quite went away.

So … should you eat breakfast or not?

Eat your breakfast, Jessica Schultz, a clinical dietitian at the University of Chicago Medicine, tells Yahoo Health. “I don’t ever recommend that patients skip any meals,” she says, adding that skipping breakfast in particular is a big no-no.

Here’s why: If your last meal was dinner at 7 p.m. and you skip breakfast the next day and don’t eat again until noon, that’s 17 hours out of a 24-hour day where you’ve been fasting. “When your body goes into fasting mode, it holds on to what you have and slows your metabolism,” Schultz says. “It’s almost impossible to lose weight that way.”

You’re also starving by that point, New York City registered dietitian Jessica Cording tells Yahoo Health. “I discourage skipping meals because it can throw off your perception of the body’s hunger cues and cause you to overeat at your next meal,” she says.

Related: The One Ingredient You Should Add to Your Breakfast Every Day

But, she adds, the question of whether breakfast prevents weight gain comes down to what you eat for breakfast (and throughout the day) as opposed to just eating breakfast in general. So if you religiously have a chocolate chip scone each morning, you’re probably going to gain weight compared to someone else who has a healthier morning meal.

Schultz recommends starting your day with a more filling high-protein breakfast, like an egg omelet with a glass of milk or Greek yogurt with nuts and seeds on top, and taking a pass on a less-filling, high-carb breakfast, like a bagel and cream cheese.

And if you want to lose weight without altering what you eat, there’s a much less painful way than missing a meal. Says Angelone, “I recommend not eating after dinner as a better option.”

Sorry, breakfast haters.

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