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To Eat or Not To Eat: The Science of Breakfast

"It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense." Robert G. Ingersoll

Some love it; some hate it. Some like it, but don’t have time for it. Breakfast. For years, we have been taught that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Should we have it? Let’s have a look at the current recommendations and explore what the researchers say.

The American Dietary Guidelines, recommends having breakfast every day because “not having breakfast has been associated with excess body weight.” Is it true?

At the University of Bath, researchers invited 33 participants, looking at whether having breakfast or skipping it may influence cholesterol levels, blood-sugar levels and the resting metabolic rates. All participants were provided with activity monitors. Six weeks later, scientists found that the body weights, cholesterol levels, most parameters of blood sugar levels and the resting metabolic rates in both groups were about the same as they had been at the beginning of the study, no matter if people ate breakfast or not.

A closer look at the two groups led to the conclusion that those who had breakfast were more physically active during the morning burning almost 500 calories than those who skipped their morning meal, but simply by eating breakfast, they consumed an additional 500 calories each day. Interestingly, those who skipped breakfast didn’t have larger portions for lunch and dinner than those who didn’t have their breakfast.

Another study on whether breakfast plays a role in weight loss was carried out at the University of Alabama. Researcher enroled nearly 300 people who were trying to lose weight. All participants were randomly selected to either skip breakfast, always have breakfast or continue with their current routines. In each group, some people habitually ate or skipped breakfast when the study began.

The results were rather disappointing. After sixteen weeks, nobody had lost much weight, (an average participant lost less than a pound), with weight in all groups uninfluenced by whether someone had their breakfast or not.

Other studies carried out over the next couple of years confirmed that skipping breakfast for at least four weeks is associated with a reduction in body weight or no change at all.

The largest observational study to date published a few years ago in Obesity was probably the most promising. Scientist followed more than 20,000 middle-aged and older men for ten years. The study has shown that those who had breakfast were 13% less likely to have had a significant weight gain. Researchers suggested that having breakfast may indeed modestly lower the risk of weight gain, but the results were hugely affected by various lifestyle factors like smoking, low level of physical activity and high level of stress, all of which may have contributed to weight gain.

Probably the most controversial study was published a few years ago by researchers at a New York City hospital who wanted to see if this popular concept that skipping breakfast causes weight gain is true. In their study every morning for four weeks, one group of people had oatmeal, another had frosted corn flakes, and the third group had nothing. It turned out that the only group that lost weight was actually the one that skipped breakfast.

All these studies have shown that contrary to popular belief, skipping breakfast, doesn’t translate into weight gain and in some cases it's even associated with some weight loss.

We need to admit that these are relatively short-term observational studies with small groups of people involved. The biggest weakness in observational studies, of course, is that they may fail to replicate, and, therefore, most of them could be challenged.

So, what the randomised controlled clinical trials say about the link between breakfast and obesity? Looking at a review of six randomised controlled trials examining how a variety of different breakfasts may be related to weight gain the results are very similar. Most studies found no clear evidence that skipping breakfast led to weight gain. Only one study has shown that people who had a high-protein breakfast gained less body fat.

The new Dietary Guidelines are being updated, as its credibility has been compromised by a few important scientific inconsistencies like the condemnation of dietary cholesterol and fats or warnings about dangers of salt and now the confusion around breakfast and weight gain.

It’s unlikely that skipping breakfast is associated with weight gain, but it may be interesting to see whether overweight people respond differently to breakfast than those who are slender or if what we eat for breakfast matters more than whether we have it or not.

Ultimately, having breakfast isn't about weight gain or loss. It's about providing the body with vital nutrients and energy to break the fasting period. What works for some, may not work for others. Personalise your break-fast and eat when you are hungry.

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