If there’s a discussion that we have often at Cooking Light, it’s about whether breakfast is really so important. Readers constantly ask: Will skipping breakfast cause me to gain weight? How exactly does breakfast help me stay healthy?
And there’s so much conflicting research that it's hard to keep track. Some studies show that the meal jump-starts your metabolism, promoting weight loss. Others suggest it doesn't make much difference whether you skip it or not. Still others find skipping breakfast may help you lose weight.
So to set the record straight—or at least get the most up-to-date info, we reached out to a team of professionals who agreed to provide some much-needed clarity.
These experts have read the research, have helped plenty of clients get healthy, and know how to eat well and stay healthy. Here's what they say.
Cynthia Sass, RD is a New York Times bestselling author and contributing editor for Health magazine, sharing her expertise with clients and on programs like the TODAY Show and Good Morning America. Jennifer Markowitz MS, RD, is a dietitian and nutritionist who works with clients to help identify the best approach to a healthy diet and holistic health. And Kelly Allison, PhD, is the director of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Weight and Eating Disorders.
We asked these pros to help answer some of the most common questions when it comes to discussing breakfast importance for our health, and we're presenting them here, in their own words:
Does skipping breakfast cause you to gain weight?
Jennifer Markowitz: “I think, unfortunately, that a lot of people ask this question and hope to find one right answer for a one-size-fits-all solution.
I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re someone who does eat breakfast, you need to continue eating breakfast. The truth is that most of the time, the caloric intake throughout the entire day is indeed the same if you’re eating breakfast or not. But the difference is that breakfast jump-starts your metabolism. I’m also familiar with research that shows one thing people who are able to maintain weight loss have in common is that they are eating breakfast.”
Cynthia Sass: “I do see people who eat breakfast first thing in the morning go on to not eat as much later that night, which is a big factor for weight management for my clients. Anecdotally, clients who would have a healthy, normal lunch, in addition to a breakfast, tend to do better at dinnertime.
If they get up early and the only time they’ve eaten during the whole day is lunch, that’s when I see that portion sizes and food choices tend to be harmful. Snacks, in addition to any meals you might have, also play into this—keeping the feeling of hunger in check throughout the day does make a difference.”
Kelly Allison: “Whenever I consider this, I remember that the research findings are mixed and the studies are mixed. There’s an inherent relationship that those who are eating earlier in the day tend to be correlated with a lower body mass index. But it has to do with the individual’s circadian rhythm and the 24-hour cycle that they’re on.
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The question you should be asking instead is how early do you need to eat for optimal health? The newest research that’s come into play shows that dieters should manipulate the timing of eating, and how long you’re eating, to be only 10 or 11 hours out of the day. Do you start at 8 in the morning? What’s realistic for you; what time can you get home and enjoy dinner and comfortably stop eating for the day?”
Beyond weight gain or weight loss, is there another reason why breakfast plays a role in our health?
Cynthia Sass: “A big advantage that breakfast can have is the ability for you to fit in more food groups that you might normally have trouble fitting in. Normally, I’d recommend five servings of fresh vegetables each day for my clients—that’s not the easiest thing for some to get in every day.
Veggies can be incorporated into breakfast, whether it be an omelet, or a blended smoothie, or shredded zucchini or kale into a cup of oatmeal. I tend to see that those who have a savory breakfast as compared to a sweet one will be more inclined to dig into office snacks or become hungrier than usual before lunch, and veggies are a great way to enjoy a savory breakfast.”
Kelly Allison: “With my patients, I always ask: what time do you get up? When do you start feeling hungry? Realistically, what time can you eat early as possible, rather than having you eat so late in the day that you’re up against bedtime when you finally stop eating or snacking.
If you get up at 7:30, I ask them, can you be finished with all of your eating by 7:30pm? If you’re eating lunch at 1030 or 11, it’s fine—but where I see skipping breakfast as a huge problem is when my patients lose control at lunchtime. They’re making poor food choices and eating bigger quantities than if they had a reasonable breakfast and comparable lunch.
A common misconception might be that people who eat only one or two meals everyday have free reign to eat whatever they want, but that’s not the case.”
Does time have anything to do with the importance of breakfast, or any other meal for that matter? How does our metabolism relate to breakfast?
Kelly Allison: “What we know is that breakfast influences our circadian rhythm, and when that first meal is given earlier in the day versus later towards lunchtime, glucose levels respond better generally and the body in turn burns more of the fat and calories rather than storing them.
There are metabolic benefits to eating earlier in the day, and for people who don’t eat breakfast, that doesn’t happen. If you go too long without eating and then try to be active during the day, you’re slowing everything down and then introducing calories when glucose levels have already dropped.
The body functions best when there’s a reliable source of energy, especially when you get up and start moving around.”
Jennifer Markowitz: “We’ve had a prolonged rest after sleeping—but breakfast helps to signal that we’re awake, we’re working during the day, and let’s our bodies know to start getting things moving.
The first meal you have is giving you fuel, pumping the gas so to speak, and getting the body ready to go. Metabolic changes, hormones, and the body’s insulin is [more] regulated when people choose to eat breakfast.
Another thing is our mood—when we’re feeling 'hangry,' we’re more likely to reach for that donut or pretzel, and if we only have caffeine first thing in the morning, you’re more likely to have a crash. Daily ability is a key issue when it comes to breakfast and metabolism, and if you’re feeling more sluggish or not performing in the morning and throughout the day, it might be because you’ve chosen to skip out on that early meal.”
Cynthia Sass: “The time at which we first eat and then stop eating can have a huge affect on health. People are winding down in the evening, we’re not moving around as much, and if skipping breakfast makes you more likely to eat during this time, it’ll work against you.
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It makes more sense to eat more before active hours and eat less before quiet hours. One can’t retroactively burn calories: if you don’t have calories when you actually need them and then eat them when you don’t need them, it’s a problem.”
What are some of the best foods dieters can eat during breakfast? Why?
Kelly Allison: “You’re better off to have a mixed nutrient meal, with a little bit of carbs, a little bit of fat, and sources of protein, too. Your body can take a mixed nutrient meal in and actually use it—nourish your body without spiking glucose.
But it’s important to realize that this is truly case by case. If you’re bodybuilding, for example, breakfast may be different. Mixed nutrients are always key for many patients, though.”
Jennifer Markowitz: “Simply having a meal in the morning doesn’t always mean success. What are you choosing to eat first? As with all meals, we should try to get a combo of protein, healthy fats, and fiber, which is the winning trio to help you feel full. Seek out nuts and fruits, eggs, avocados, greens, whole grains with fiber. Avoid packaged sugary cereals, nutrition bars, and also protein shakes; shakes can be great, but some can be loaded with sugar, and a lot of milk. One of the best ways to use leftovers, in my opinion, is to actually eat them for breakfast. Throw last night’s veggies into an omelet. This kind of meal kicks your metabolism to process the rest of the day’s meals in the right direction.”
Cynthia Sass: “In my opinion, the quality of the breakfast you’re eating makes a huge difference. If you’re someone who is eating pancakes with syrup and butter, or processed Pop Tarts, perhaps that’s why you’re not seeing much of a difference in weight management.
Studies show that metabolism responds to different kinds of calories as far as the quality of the calories you’re consuming, and if you transition from eating processed calories to more natural sources of energy, you could see a huge difference. 500 calories from a packaged blueberry muffin compared to 500 calories of oats, blueberries and cinnamon is processed differently. A calorie isn’t just a calorie; the quality of what you’re eating makes a big difference in terms of how your body responds and what it does with those calories.”
Do you have any tips for those who may not regularly eat breakfast? How can we successfully fit in this meal each morning?
Cynthia Sass: “One of the best tactics I have with my clients is a stepladder approach: Start with just one food that you can incorporate into a breakfast or morning snack. It could be a small handful of nuts, a quarter cup of almonds or pistachios on it’s own completely.
Choose something that is compact that can provide some healthy fat, fiber and protein, and pack overall good nutritional value into the first thing you’ve eaten in the morning. My clients notice they’re starting to wake up hungrier each day, and add more healthy options to their daily routine until they’re comfortable with a full meal.”
Jennifer Markowitz: “The best way to really make sure you’re getting breakfast in is planning it the night before. One of my all time favorite breakfasts—for myself and patients, too—is overnight oats. It’s such a simple thing that you can plan and make in a batch.
Try batching any kind of food, even if it’s just boiled eggs, or greens and toast. Do not be afraid to eat breakfast at work, either—you don’t have to eat like you’re not at home just because you’re not in your kitchen. Bring some staples, like peanut butter and fruit, into the office if need be.”
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Kelly Allison: “I like to put it this way—if you were a parent, you wouldn’t leave the house without packing a diaper bag. It’s the same idea here: you have to take care of yourself, and spending those extra five minutes even the night before will pay off in the long run.
If breakfast seems to be a problem for you, focus on preparing things that is ready to go. If you’re truly interested in optimizing your health, figuring out how to fit breakfast into your schedule is very important.”