The alternative is to study people for a long period of time, and the first longitudinal study on this topic was done in 2003. When the study researchers took a snapshot in time they found that children who skipped breakfast weighed more on average. But when they followed the same children for three years the heavier children who missed breakfast actually lost weight over time.
So we’re left with a situation where many studies, but by no means all, find that children who miss breakfast are more likely to be overweight. However, we can’t be sure whether their diet or missing breakfast is making them overweight. If missing breakfast is contributing to their weight gain then it’s not clear why, because they don’t consume more calories overall.
If it’s not about total calories consumed, could the timing of meals have an effect? Are three smaller meals better than two larger ones? Very few randomised controlled trials have been done on this topic, but there was one carried out in 1992 on adults. Obese women were given diet plans in which everyone ate the same total number of calories in a day – half had three smaller meals a day, while the other half missed breakfast, but had lunch, followed by a larger supper later on. These results really are fascinating. Those who were accustomed to skipping breakfast lost more weight if they were put in the group who ate breakfast, while the people used to regularly eating an early morning meal lost more weight if they skipped breakfast. In other words, a change in their normal routine helped them to lose weight. So maybe the lesson of that study is that you should simply do something different. At the University of Hertfordshire in the UK psychologists have developed and researched a weight loss programme based on just this premise.
It is a confusing picture, which is why a new paper just published on dieting myths includes skipping breakfast as one of the diet presumptions that have not been proven. If you choose a single study you can prove your argument either way. So when it comes to weight the jury is out,
But there could be other benefits of eating breakfast. Randomised controlled trials in rural Jamaica and Peru showed improved grades in children who ate breakfast at school. These might not generalise to everywhere because they might well have been nutritionally-deprived beforehand, so breakfast might have made more difference there than in well-nourished children.
So, to the acid question: should you eat breakfast or not if you want to lose weight? People who eat breakfast do tend to have a more balanced diet overall, but if you are only interested in the weight aspect, then until more randomised controlled trials have been done, it comes down to personal preference. Some of us simply can’t face the idea of an early breakfast. If that’s you, you can blame your chronotype – new research has found that evening types just don’t feel hungry early in the mornings. In that case, until some really good randomised controlled trials prove otherwise, perhaps the answer is to follow your stomach, not fight it.
You can hear more Medical Myths on Health Check on the BBC World Service.
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