I Need to Lose Weight, so I’ll Just Skip Breakfast

Why Breakfast Really Is the Most Important Meal of the Day

Posted Sep 03, 2014

Breakfast skipping is among the most common weight loss strategies my clients try before they walk through my door. It never works for any of them.

On the surface it would seem to be a good idea. Skipping a meal = fewer calories, right? Not necessarily. Problem #1: Breakfast skippers report being significantly hungrier, less full, and want to consume more food throughout the day than do breakfast eaters.  Problem #2: Breakfast skippers are more likely to be overweight than are non-breakfast-skippers (and this was before they decided to skip meals to lose weight). Problem #3: People who skip breakfast tend to eat more junk food throughout the day, making them more likely to be deficient in carbohydrates, fiber, and numerous vitamins and minerals. Skipping breakfast doesn’t sound like such a good idea now, huh?

Let’s talk about why these problems occur. Problem #1: Breakfast skippers report being significantly hungrier, less full, and want to consume more food. There again, it’s your hormones talking. Do you know where the word breakfast comes from? It literally means “break fast,” as in breaking the fast between the dinner you ate last night and the first meal you had today.

It’s important for that very reason. Our bodies weren’t designed to fast for long periods of time. Ideally, you should eat a small meal every 3-4 hours; no more than 5 hours should pass in between meals – with the exception of the 8 or so hours of uninterrupted sleep you get each night. Why?

Your body is a fuel-efficient machine that is tightly regulated by its hormones. Let’s say that for dinner last night, you had a Subway salad. As your body digests the salad and turns it into a fuel source it can actually use (blood sugar), your pancreas produces insulin, which regulates our blood sugar level, signals hunger and fullness, and converts any extra glucose into fat. When there’s nothing left to convert to fat, your liver signals your brain to secrete the hunger-triggering hormone orexin, and your stomach to produce ghrelin (your “I’m hungry” hormone).

What your body doesn’t know is that you’re on a diet and decided to skip breakfast in an effort to lose weight. What happens? While you might be able to pull this off a few times with no ill effects, after several days of breakfast skipping, your body wises up. Remember, not enough calories = starvation mode. Your body lowers your metabolism and you stop losing and start gaining weight because by lowering your metabolism, your body has decreased the number of calories it needs each day to sustain itself. No wonder breakfast skippers report being hungrier, can’t seem to get full, and want to consume more food!

Problem #2: Breakfast skippers are more likely to be overweight. While part of this can certainly be attributed to the “starvation mode” thing we just talked about, here’s the other reality about breakfast skippers: they’re more likely to “compensate” for not eating breakfast by rebound overeating (binge eating) and/or eating larger portions than they need at subsequent meals. Again, it has to do with your hormones and your body thinking you’re in starvation mode.

Problem #3: People who skip breakfast tend to eat more junk food throughout the day, consuming more “fake” foods like fast food, soft drinks, high-fat foods, and snacks while eating fewer “real foods” like fruits and vegetables. As a result, breakfast skippers end up with higher daily percentage of calories from fat and lower intakes of nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables (carbohydrates) and protein. This is particularly important when you consider that people who eat a higher protein breakfast are less likely to overeat and be overweight than are people who skip or eat a low-protein breakfast. Why? Get this: people who eat a high protein breakfast produce 20% less ghrelin (“I’m hungry” hormone) for the entire day! In addition, people who eat a high protein breakfast show 250% higher levels of PYY (a hormone that reduces hunger). Holy cow! Or protein as the case may be.

Weight Loss Tip: Eat Your Wheaties (or whatever works for you)!

 We know from the research that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. But what should you eat for breakfast? To some extent, that depends on you. Here’s what we know:

  • Breakfast should comprise about 15-20% of your calories for the day, which makes sense if you’re eating 5 to 6 times each day. Translation: a quick cup of coffee is not breakfast. As black coffee contains only 2 calories per 8 oz. cup, coffee is not something to start your day off right.
  • Like all of your meals, breakfast should be comprised of real food as much as possible. Translation: adding a donut to your cup of coffee does not make it a healthy breakfast either.
  • The study that found that people who ate a high protein breakfast were less hungry throughout the day fed their participants a breakfast consisting of 40% protein (35 g protein), 40% carbohydrate, and 20% fat whereas the participants in the low protein breakfast group consumed 15% protein (13 g protein), 65% carbohydrate, and 20% fat. While most of their findings compared eating a high protein breakfast with not eating anything for breakfast, they still found a 30% increase in fullness for the high protein group compared to the low protein group. That being said, both the low protein and high protein breakfast eaters reported a 30% lower desire to eat and subsequent food consumption than did the breakfast skippers.Translation: eat a breakfast containing at least 15% protein, but if you can eat more than that (up to 40% protein), you might feel fuller longer.

But what exactly should you eat for breakfast? That depends on you. Some people do better with more carbohydrates and some do better with more protein. So I encourage you to do a little Breakfast experiment. Don’t freak out – it’s only for a week. It works like this. Each day for one week, you’re going to eat something different for breakfast. So you might have coffee and a muffin one day, cereal another, a fruit smoothie one day, and eggs on another day. After that week, you’ll know what your body likes to eat for breakfast.

About the Author

Mary E. Pritchard, Ph.D., is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Boise State University.

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