Skipping breakfast to lose weight? No thanks!

Andrew Hamilton explains why new claims in the media that ‘skipping breakfast can help weight loss’ should be taken with a bucket load of salt…

It’s still January (just), which means that many fitness enthusiasts will be thinking about nutritional strategies to optimise performance for the coming season. A popular strategy is to reduce excess weight in the form of body fat, thereby boosting power-to-weight ratio, which enhances endurance performance, particularly in runners, and cyclists performing in hilly terrain.

Media facts or hype?

Turning on the radio or TV today, you might have seen stories about breakfast and weight loss.  Basically, the media is awash with claims that skipping breakfast may be a good weight loss strategy. But is this really true? Well, what the journalists  seem to have conveniently forgotten to mention about the research (published in the BMJ – see here) is that:
1. Quote: “All of the included trials were at high or unclear risk of bias, only provided for short term follow-ups of the subjects and were mostly of low quality” – ie the findings and conclusions of this study are based on poor science, and thus are inherently unreliable.
2. These so-called research findings finding fly in the faces of dozens and dozens of other studies showing that skipping breakfast is strongly associated with weight gain, obesity and lower muscle mass. Breakfast skipping is also strongly linked to type-2 diabetes.
Click on the links above to read summaries of these three recent studies. You can see for yourself why these claims in the BMJ are so questionable.

Long-established truths

The research in the three studies above is recent but there’s actually excellent scientific evidence going back over two decades demonstrating that skipping breakfast is associated with weight GAIN – not weight loss. Here’s a short piece I wrote on this topic way back in 2005:

“The old adage that you should breakfast like a king may be one of the best known of the lot, but it doesn’t stop lots of people from skipping it anyway. One of the most common reasons cited for missing breakfast is to help reduce calorie intake as part of a weight loss campaign. But new American research demonstrates that this strategy appears to have exactly the opposite effect [Am Diet Assoc. Sep;105(9):1373-82, 2005].

The researchers from Michigan set out to establish whether there was an association between body mass index (BMI – a measure of fatness in relation to height) and the frequency of breakfast consumption. In particular, they wanted to see whether the consumption of cereal-based breakfasts offered any advantage. A carefully design statistical analysis of food consumption patterns of over 4,000 adults was undertaken. The results were as follows:
● Women who ate breakfast regularly tended to have a higher daily calorie intake than those who didn’t;
● In both men and women, eating a cereal-based breakfast was associated with a lower daily fat intake and higher carbohydrate intake;
● There was an inverse association between breakfast cereal consumption and body mass index in women – ie a higher breakfast cereal consumption predicted a lower BMI.
Of course, an association is not quite the same thing as cause and effect. But this study does provide persuasive evidence that eating a cereal-based breakfast is good for weight loss programs and also provides another nail in the coffin for the advocates of the Atkins/low carbohydrate approach to weight loss!”

In summary then, while some specific fasted training rides and runs can aid endurance athletes to become better at burning fay, the bottom line is that if maintaining a healthy and stable weight while optimising performance is your goal, you should eat breakfast – NOT skip it!

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