My first talking tour of the UK has just finished, and one of the subjects that has come up a lot is breakfast. Is skipping breakfast a terrible way to start your day? Will you get hungry later, eat all the wrong things and put on weight? That is certainly what Public Health England and NHS guidelines currently say. But is it true?
There is plenty of evidence from cohort studies that eating breakfast is good for your health. A 2018n study from the German Diabetes Centre in Düsseldorf, for example, found that when they compared a group of people who skipped breakfast with a group who ate breakfast, those who skipped it were not only heavier but were also 33 per cent more likely to have type 2 diabetes than those who didn’t.
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But just because people who skip breakfast tend to be less healthy, it doesn’t mean that breakfast is the reason. The fact is that people who regularly eat breakfast also smoke less, drink less and tend to be more active than those who skip breakfast, factors which are likely to be of much greater importance than when you decide to break your fast.
The best way to resolve the question is to do randomised controlled studies in which you ask breakfast skippers to eat breakfast, and vice versa, and see what happens.
The good news is that a large number of these studies have been done. The bad news, for the advocates of ‘breakfast is the most
important meal of the day’, is that randomised controlled trials have, on the whole, shown that getting people to eat breakfast can be counterproductive.
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A large meta-analysis recently published in the British Medical Journal pulled together results from a dozen studies. It found that although people who skip breakfast do eat more later in the day, they don’t eat enough to compensate for the calories
they skipped early on.
In fact, the scientists found that people who are asked to skip breakfast eat, on average, 260kcal less a day than those who eat it. They also weigh, on average, 0.44kg less. The researchers concluded that, “Caution is needed when recommending breakfast for weight loss in adults, as it could have the opposite effect.”
Prof Tim Spector, of King’s College London, who wrote an accompanying blog, went further. He not only queries the benefits of making people eat breakfast, but also points out that the alleged benefits for children are, “weak, largely observational, and likely biased in the same way as for adults”.
So the message is, if you enjoy eating breakfast (as I do), then fine. But if you prefer to wait and break your fast later in the day, then no harm done.