Breakfast plays unclear role in weight control, is it healthier to eat or skip the morning meal?

Somewhere between "I never eat breakfast" and "breakfast is my most important meal of the day" may lie the answer to shrinking waistlines.

But a buffet of recent scientific studies gives mixed evidence about what morning meal plan might be better for our health.

Officially, "eating a healthy breakfast is a good way to start the day and may be important in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight," says the U.S. Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Decrease Overweight and Obesity in children and adolescents.

Beyond that, though, there's evidence for and against skipping breakfast.

First up: a July report in the journal Physiology and Behavior that concluded skipping breakfast several times a week may be a reasonable way to drop a few pounds.

Nutritional scientists at Cornell University either fed or withheld a breakfast of roughly 624 calories from two dozen healthy young adult volunteers -- half regular breakfast eaters and half skippers. Then they observed how much each participant ate the rest of the day.

Although the breakfast skippers started the day hungrier, they did not eat more at lunch or later meals. By the end of the day, they had consumed an average of 408 fewer calories than the group that ate breakfast.

Also in July, researchers at Tel Aviv University reported a different approach in the journal Obesity. They randomly assigned 93 obese women in their 40s to one of two meal plans for a 12-week period. The first group consumed 700 calories at breakfast (including dessert such as a cookie or chocolate cake), 500 at lunch and 200 at dinner. The second group ate a 200-calorie breakfast, a 500-calorie lunch and a 700-calorie dinner. Both contained moderate amounts of carbohydrates and fat.

By the end of the study, participants in the big-breakfast group had each lost an average of 17.8 pounds and three inches from their waistlines, compared to a 7.3 pound weight loss and 1.4 inch decline in waist measurement.

A 2011 Purdue University study in the same journal involving 27 obese men found that those who ate three regular-size meals (including breakfast) with lean protein generally felt fuller than those who ate a higher-protein diet split in smaller portions over more meals (six) in the day.

The men who ate the regular-size meals had reductions in appetite and less late-night desire to eat, while the more frequent eaters saw little beneficial impact on their appetites.

Another paper, published in September in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, looked back at hundreds of studies that have examined whether skipping breakfast contributes to obesity.

Researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that only a handful of those trials were scientifically rigorous, and that those either found breakfast has little or no effect on weight gain, or that breakfast eaters wind up consuming more daily calories than skippers.

Only one randomized controlled trial -- involving 52 women and done in 1992 at Vanderbilt University -- showed any link. Even then the results were mixed. Breakfast skippers put on a 12-week diet with breakfast lost an average of 17 pounds. But regular breakfast eaters in the group who were told to skip the meal lost an average of 20 pounds.

Most other research over the years may have shown an association between breakfast and weight loss, but not any direct cause and effect, the Alabama team wrote.

Now they're working on setting up their own randomized controlled breakfast trial with 300 people at a half dozen locations around the country. The next helping of results should be available sometime next year.

(Contact Scripps health and science writer Lee Bowman at BowmanL@shns.com . Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com .)

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