Let's face it – none of the meals we consume on a daily basis has gained more notoriety and praise from all the health and fitness outlets out there than breakfast has.
In fact, if I were to go right now and ask 100 different people, including seasoned athletes, what their thoughts were on the importance of breakfast in terms of leaning out and avoiding fat gain, I'm willing to bet that 95% of them would say that it's one of the most crucial factors.
Based. On. What. – I ask? Really. Is anyone capable of responding without using generic answers such as "because you need more energy after a whole night of fasting to prevent muscle catabolism" or "because it gives you more energy for the rest of the day"? Can anyone actually offer proof? Because I'd love to see it.
Well, I happen to have proof of the opposite being true. I'm going to tell you exactly why skipping breakfast is a good thing (or at worst – neutral), and how it can help those who are looking to shed body fat while maintaining as much of their precious muscle mass as possible. And yes – I'm going to produce evidence.
The Breakfast Myth
I believe the whole misunderstanding behind this has to do with epidemiological (population-based) studies that were published in the past, and which concluded that "people who consumed breakfast on a regular basis were, on average, leaner than those who didn't. Here are two examples off the top of my head: PMID: 21925535 and PMID 16870015.
Ok, that's fine. There is a correlation between regularly eating breakfast, and being leaner. No problem. But wait a minute… there is also a correlation between frequent match-lighting and cancer (hey, smokers light matches often, don't they?). Should we all proclaim that lighting matches causes cancer?
Of course, this is an absurd example. I'm just trying to make a point here – "correlation does not imply causation." And I believe that's exactly what we're dealing with when it comes to breakfasts. Why? Because every single study I've looked at and which actually attempts to test the influence of breakfast in a controlled setting, seems to point towards one of two things:
- There is no difference regardless of whether you skip breakfast or not.
- There is an advantage to skipping breakfast.
I found absolutely nothing that would point towards breakfast being beneficial in and by itself (with a few psychological exceptions, but more on that in a moment) for someone trying to cure obesity or simply shed some excess fat. So let's take a look at what it is we're actually dealing with here.
I'll start with this one:
Protocol: 15 obese subjects were fed 684 kcal at 10 AM only, 6 PM only, spread out over the entire day (10 AM, 2 PM, 6 PM), and finally fasted for 36 hours. This was the short-lasting protocol (3 days). Another, long-lasting protocol (18 days) was also carried out, this time with only two different meal-timing patterns: all calories consumed at 10 AM, or all calories consumed at 6 PM. Various measurements and health markers were taken every few hours for the entire duration of the trial.
Results: in the short-lasting protocol, "significantly higher lipid oxidation (…) documented with the meal at 1800 hr [6 PM]". For the long-lasting protocol, "higher lipid oxidation (…) again demonstrated with the meal at 18 hr."
Here's another one:
Protocol: Ten women were divided into two groups, and they underwent a 12-week-long weight loss regimen (restricted energy intake), which was divided into two 6-week-long periods. During the first period, one group would receive 70% of its daily calories in the AM, while the other would receive them in the PM. Once the 6 weeks were over, each group crossed over to the opposite regimen for the remainder of the second period.
Results: eating 70% of daily calories in the PM resulted in better lean muscle mass preservation. And in case you didn't know, there are many reasons why preserving muscle is important, and I'm not talking looks and metabolism only here.
I'm just going to copy/paste the conclusion directly:
Observers of Ramadan lose on average about a kilogram of weight over 4 weeks, and the lost weight is quickly regained. Current weight management treatments generally assume that skipping meals leads to weight gain and advise against it. The finding suggests that further research is needed on the justification of the ‘do not skip meals’ advice.
And one more, this time a little on the extreme side:
Protocol: 16 non-obese adults (an equal mix of men and women) fasted every other day for a total of 22 days. Their body weight, composition, RMR and other markers were measured.
Results: Subjects lost an average of 2.5% of their initial body weight, and 4% of their initial fat mass. Feelings of hunger were elevated starting with the first day of fasting, which was to be expected I guess.
To put those numbers (2.5% and 4%) into perspective, let's consider this example: a male at 170 pounds and 17% body fat, which translates to roughly 29 pounds of fat (remember – we are dealing with non-obese subjects here). This would mean that an average of 4.25 pounds of total body weight, and an average of 1.16 pounds of pure fat, were lost.
I hardly think this means that skipping breakfast makes you "gain weight."
A Little Bit Of Voodoo
The following question is by no means "evidence," though it could make for some tasty food for your thoughts: Why would nature lead us, through the process of evolution, to a phase where not eating something right after waking up would be unhealthy?
I mean, think about it. Do you believe that our oldest ancestors woke up in the morning and had a turkey sandwich ready for breakfast? Because personally, I think they probably spent a good 4 to 8 hours trying to catch something before they would even get a chance to smell food. Therefore, from an evolutionary perspective, I do not really see a reason to make breakfast "mandatory."
Again, this is just some personal rambling. I'll stop now.
So Why Are Habitual Breakfast Eaters Leaner?
Could be any number of things:
– Perhaps it helps them think less about food throughout the day and makes them less likely to overeat.
– Maybe people who eat breakfast regularly are more likely to pay attention to their health in general and therefore don't over-consume their calories.
– Could be that they are better planners in general and, as a result, plan their daily food intake better than the average person.
It could be one of many things, to be honest. However, this does not mean that we should be telling people that they should eat breakfast if they want to lose fat. That's something you do with children: you tell them to do something, just "because", without giving a justification and purely based on your belief that it is good for them.
I don't believe, however, that we should treat adults that way. We should be telling them instead how things really are, how if they can plan their daily calorie intake and stick to that plan then they'll be able to lose weight regardless of whether they eat breakfast or not.
I mean, look at what we are dealing with; almost every single human in the Western civilization knows that "breakfast is good," though this isn't stopping obesity rates from rising at an alarmingly accelerating rate, is it?
The advice that is being given simply isn't working. A change of focus is needed.
Mark Nazzal is an online 1 on 1 weight loss and fitness coach, who'll make sure the job gets done – once and for all. You can ask him for personalized advice at his Fitness Forum, or get in touch via his Google+ Page.