Is eating breakfast a key to successful weight control?

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.

References:

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

12 Responses to Is eating breakfast a key to successful weight control?

  1. Jenny 3 March 2008 at 6:34 pm #

    I’m not so sure about breakfast… like you say, it depends on what breakfast-skippers eat later. What about Interval Fasting and Fast-5 when done low-carb? I’ve been doing a low-carb version of Fast-5 (19 hours overnight fasting/5 hours eating window) for the last three weeks and am losing weight consistently, plus have much more energy than before.

  2. Dr John Briffa 3 March 2008 at 7:06 pm #

    Jenny
    I’m open to this sort of approach, but have no experience of it, particularly in the long term. Do you have a sense for what the long-term results generally are?

  3. Barry McMurdock 4 March 2008 at 3:28 pm #

    Dear Dr Briffa, re: the long term…..
    Cliff Richard says he has been doing this for most of his adult life i.e. just eating in the evenings, as a response to being called ‘podgy’ ( or somesuch) after appearing on Coronation Street in his twenties!

    Prima facie, it seems to have worked well.

  4. James G 7 March 2008 at 1:20 pm #

    Hi Dr. Briffa,
    I have to admit, I’ve been using your Bircher muesli recipe (“Hunter” version) for a few weeks now, and found I am less prone to snacking in between meals and after evening meals lately.

    Thanks.

  5. Violet B. 8 March 2008 at 10:15 am #

    Hello Dr Briffa

    What would you suggest a recently diagnosed coeliac had for breakfast?

    Thank-you

    Violet

  6. Vitally Well 9 March 2008 at 3:44 am #

    I have not heard of Bircher muesli. After looking it up, it looks like something I’d enjoy. Must be a European thing. Thanks.

  7. Rudina Abbas 9 March 2008 at 6:32 pm #

    As a nutritional therapist and sceptic of the low-fat/high-carb dogma, I usually recommend an egg-based breakfast such as a 2-egg omelette with a generous amount of organic butter and one slice of wholegrain toast: The high fat + protein content tend to keep you going for around 4 hours, plus you get plenty of nutrients from the eggs, vitamins A and E from the butter and a little fibre thrown in from the toast.

  8. Hilda 10 March 2008 at 11:24 pm #

    As I also teach children as well as being a nutritioinst,I am very concerned about what they eat. Nearly always coco pops or something similar . Some have choc spread sandwiches for lunch with sugary drinks. It could break your heartSorry about typos., but parents have no idea that it affects the brain. Sometimes I feel I am on another planet from everyone else. Sometimes I think I am mad and the odd one out so it is nice to know that there are others who think like me. Any moral support out there?

  9. Tracy Bradley 15 March 2008 at 1:51 pm #

    Hi Dr. Briffa! Regular reader, haven’t posted much though. Really enjoy your blog.

    I rarely eat breakfast. In fact, I eat my first meal at around 2-3pm, most days, then have dinner several hours later. My diet is concentrated around meat and fat, mainly, with some veg and dairy. Throughout the day I’ll have several cups of decaf tea with coconut milk or heavy cream.

    This started out as me experimenting with IF (varying schedules) but now I just eat when I’m hungry. It finally got my weight loss going again, and I am now at my lowest adult weight ever. BTW, I don’t restrict calories, nor am I eating a low-cal diet.

    I don’t go hungry, or snack. My meals are no larger than they were when I ate three meals a day. And I am finally free of compulsive eating issues!

    From my personal experience eating a high carb/low fat diet, starches don’t satisfy my appetite. I could (and did) eat all day, and missing a meal left me insanely hungry and irritable. HFLC doesn’t leave me hungry at all, or irritable…there’s no difference in my alertness or functioning when I am “fasted” as opposed to fed. I’ve even completed several strength training sessions in a fasted state, with no ill effects.

    My sense is these breakfast studies involve people eating a SAD/high carb diet.

    Violet, I’m celiac as well – it can take a while to get out of the “breakfast food” mentality and start eating regular foods for brekkie, I know! Bacon and eggs are great, and keep you nice and full. Muffins and other bread-type foods can be made with nut flours, and flax meal makes a nice, albeit slightly gummy, hot cereal. A really, really delicious “danish” can be made in the microwave with 4 T cream cheese, 1 egg and the flavourings of your choice – vanilla, sweetener, cinnamon and butter is a personal fave, though you can use jam, or savory ingredients as well! The recipe section at http://www.lowcarb.org has wonderful, gluten-free breakfast ideas.

  10. Louise 8 April 2008 at 8:53 am #

    After years of yo yo dieting – losing up to 20kg’s at a time thro starving mostly and then piling them back on after a few months – I decided to try something different! Instead of “dieting ” persay, I have commited to a “lifestyle change”. Starting the day with a wholesome breakfast was a first for me, especially one as delicious as a bowl of Bircher Muesli, some grated apple with tsp. honey! I have added 60 minutes of cardio and strengthening sessions 3 x a week and this breakfast is brilliant for energy. To think back to the days of an apple and a cup of black coffee! Raw & natural is the way to go for me, with sensible choices throughout the day – 14kg’s down (in about 6 months, so no overnight fix!) with another 15 to go! Let’s face it, the faster it comes off, the faster it comes back!

  11. ruby 26 August 2008 at 10:00 pm #

    having been on/off ‘diets’ for many years,now at the age of 70
    I wonder if I will ever get to grips with weight loss! Have I left it too late? I know exercise plays an important aid to weight loss but this does not come so easy at a mature age!

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