A: Carrie, these are great questions, and you are certainly not alone. Most of us have heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and skipping breakfast leads to all sorts of negative consequences—including weight gain and increased risk of disease.
Yet, up to 25% of Americans regularly start their days without breakfast. And with the popularity and sound scientific reasoning of intermittent fasting, that number is likely to go up, as more people find reasons to skip breakfast.
Let’s dive into some research to answer the question: “Is it good to skip breakfast?”
Reasons to Eat Breakfast
Observational studies have found that folks who eat breakfast are less likely to be overweight and have a lower Body Mass Index (especially in children) due to a more even energy intake throughout the day. Some research also indicates people who eat cereal for breakfast also tend to eat more of several micronutrients and fiber. 1,2 Interestingly, some studies, though not all, found even though breakfast eaters generally consume more calories, they were less likely to be overweight. 3
Other observational studies indicate that folks who eat breakfast have a lower risk for a number of chronic diseases, including heart disease. 4,5 And those who skipped breakfast were also found to have a lower-quality diet and experienced increased appetite that led to eating more throughout the rest of the day. 6
There’s also evidence that consuming breakfast helps improve cognitive function, including memory, grades, and attendance in school-aged kids.3 A good breakfast can also boost energy, help control cravings, and improve focus and performance according to nutritionists.
Unfortunately, observational studies are just that—observational. They don’t prove that eating breakfast is what caused people to be healthier. Instead, breakfast eaters may just be more likely to have healthier lifestyles and consume more fiber and micronutrients.
For example, other research has found that skipping meals is associated with increased risk of hypertension, insulin resistance, elevated fasting blood fat concentrations, and increased body weight. 4 Yet, this research also found that folks who skipped out on breakfast also are more likely to smoke, drink more alcohol, and exercise less. These factors—not so much breakfast skipping—may explain the increased health risks.
It’s also worth noting that the mantra “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” was actually introduced as part of a food marketing campaign from General Foods to help sell cereal. Later, the “go to work on an egg” campaign was introduced by the Egg Marketing Board. So, much of what we’ve learned about the importance of “eating a good breakfast” actually comes from marketing and PR campaigns.
Reasons to Skip Breakfast
The claim that skipping breakfast causes weight gain isn’t supported by science. 7 Research has found that by skipping this meal, folks may reduce their calorie consumption by up to 400 calories for the day and lose weight. 8,9 This makes sense.
And skipping breakfast is becoming more common due to the increasing popularity of intermittent fasting, especially the 16/8 method, which means you fast for 16 hours and eat all your daily calories during an 8-hour feeding window. This method typically involves skipping breakfast, with your first meal being around lunchtime.
According to the research, intermittent fasting has been shown to help:
- Increase weight loss
- Improve metabolic health
- Potentially increase longevity 10
- Restrict energy intake more easily
- Maintain lean mass 11
- Decrease oxidative stress
- Increase compliance
- Control metabolic and cardiovascular diseases 12
Intermittent fasting, however, isn’t right for everyone. Some people experience negative effects like:
- Intense hunger, making food restriction difficult
- Impaired fasting lipids
- Impaired insulin sensitivity after meals 13
- Drops in blood sugar, especially in individuals with type 2 diabetes 14
- Lack of concentration 15
Is it Good to Skip Breakfast?
Studies have found that there’s no difference in weight among folks who ate breakfast or those who skipped it. 17,18 Other research has found that intermittent fasting provides comparable reductions in abdominal fat, fasting insulin levels, and insulin resistance as a “standard diet.” 19
So, the real answer is that there is no magic from eating versus not eating breakfast. Like many diet quandaries, the likeliest answer is that it depends on the person (and even within individuals, the best diet may vary from time to time).
Skipping breakfast (including, intermittent fasting) is highly helpful and effective for some people. Some folks just aren’t hungry in the morning. Others, however, find that because they are so hungry, they tend to overeat the rest of the day, or they just don’t feel their best and brightest if they skip breakfast.
If breakfast is your favorite meal of the day but you want to try intermittent fasting, you can also change your window of eating to what works best for your personal rhythm. If you eat breakfast at 7:00 a.m. and then have dinner before 7:00 p.m., you’ll still be fasting for a full 12 hours of the day. Or, eat breakfast at 10:00 a.m. and have dinner before 6:00 p.m. for a 16-hour fast. As a bonus, you’ll also avoid nighttime snacking, which is so often done mindlessly in front of the TV.
So, choosing whether or not to eat breakfast is highly personal. What works for your friend or partner may not be best for you. By all means, feel free to skip breakfast to see how you feel. Do you enjoy a surprising burst of energy and clarity? Or, do you think about food the entire time and find yourself bingeing the moment the clock says you can eat? Follow your body’s cues and what makes you feel your best!
Ultimately, it’s much more important to ensure you’re eating a diet made up of mostly real whole foods with plenty of vegetables and fruits and proteins (say a veggie-loaded omelet or fruit-filled protein smoothie)—whether that starts with breakfast or not.