Is eating breakfast a key to successful weight control?

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Over the years, I’ve spoken to or have been consulted by a fair few people who, by their own admission, don’t have the best eating habits. A quite common picture I see involves the skipping or breakfast, a sandwich-centric lunch, followed by general overeating in the evening. This will usually entail some snacking before supper (e.g. cheese, bread, crackers, crisps�), and perhaps some more food after the main meal too (biscuits, chocolate, ice cream). Having had their fill of what seems likes way too much food the night before, individuals will generally eschew breakfast once more, and so the cycle repeats.

My experience tells me that if these individuals want to get control over their eating (and for this to be relatively pain-free), then some sort of breakfast needs to be eaten. Without this meal, I find that very rarely can someone comfortably make better food choices and lose weight if this is an issue.

I was therefore interested to read a study just published in the journal Pediatrics which assessed the relationship between breakfast eating and body mass index over in 2216 adolescents [1]. The eating habits of the study participants were assessed at the start of the study and then 5 years later. Basically, what the researchers found was the skipping breakfast was found to be associated with increased body mass index. Also, the more breakfasts were skipped, the greater BMI tended to be. These findings are in keeping with previous research linking skipped breakfast with an enhanced tendency to gain weight.

Studies of this nature (epidemiological studies) cannot prove that skipping breakfast causes weight gain. It might be, of course, that individuals who are, say, overweight and therefore weight-conscious are more likely to skip breakfast in an effort to control their weight. In fact, this study did find that individuals who were attempting to lose weight were more likely to skip breakfast, which is consistent with the idea that some adolescents may skip breakfast in an attempt to lose weight.

However, it should be borne in mind, I think, that there are potential mechanisms through which skipping breakfast might cause weight gain in the long term.

1. Caloric restriction (e.g. through skipping meals) can cause the metabolic rate to stall, making the conversion of food into energy less efficient.

2. Skipping breakfast can mean an over-ravenous appetite at lunch which can lead to a preference for carbohydrate-based meals (e.g. bread, pasta) that, through the secretion of insulin, may be more likely to lead to fat deposition in the body.

3. Skipping breakfast can lead to the general over-consumption of food later in the day. This is certainly my usual experience in practice, and there is some evidence to support this phenomenon too. In one study, the diet diaries of almost 800 men and women were examined [2]. Their food and calorific intake was assessed for each of five, four-hour periods stretching from 6 am to 2 am the following day. The results of this study showed that those who had consumed the bulk of their food near the end of the day ate, on average, significantly more calories than individuals who ate more substantial amounts of food early on. In addition to assessing food intake over the course of each day, the researchers also calculated how effective each meal was at sating the appetite. The so-called ‘satiety index’ of each meal was calculated by dividing the number of calories it contained into the time that elapsed before another meal or snack was eaten. Interestingly, food eaten later in the day was found to satisfy less, calorie for calorie, than food eaten earlier in the day,

It’s one thing eating breakfast, and another thing eating a healthy one. Personally, I advise against pre-packaged breakfast cereals on a number of counts, including their ability to upset blood sugar and insulin levels and low nutritional content.

One option I’ve found works well for most people is Bircher muesli. The main ingredients I recommend for this are oats, plain yoghurt, nuts (e.g. ground almonds) and/or seeds and some dried fruit. This blend can be mixed with water to make the consistency of porridge. One batch will last the whole week in an airtight container in the fridge. This breakfast is made up of relatively natural unprocessed foods, is nutritionally varied, and it doesn’t take much of it (in terms of volume) to do the trick in terms of sating the appetite. It can be had at home or, if relevant, taken to work and eaten once in the office or even on the way.


1. Timlin MT, et al. Breakfast eating and weight change in a 5-year prospective analysis of adolescents: project EAT (Eating Among Teens) Pediatrics 2008;121:e638-645

2. de Castro JM. The time of day of food intake influences overall intake in humans. Journal of Nutrition 2004 134:104-111

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