No, skipping breakfast will not cause you to gain weight

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, we are often told, mostly because it helps us keep off the excess weight. But a new meta-analysis now shows that the science doesn't actually back up this claim.

Conventional wisdom suggests that skipping breakfast will make us hungrier throughout the day, thereby causing us to overeat and snack more frequently.

But a new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition is throwing this assumption out the window, claiming that the breakfast myth is the result of inaccurate, self-serving, and misconstrued studies. At most, say the researchers, missing breakfast has little or no effect on weight gain. What's more, people who eat breakfast sometimes end up consuming more daily calories than those who skip it.

Part of the problem, say the University of Alabama at Birmingham researchers, is that very few controlled trials have been set up to test the claim. Writing for the New York Times, Anahad O'Conner explains more:

But those trials have been largely overlooked, and their findings drowned out by dozens of large observational studies that have found associations between breakfast habits and obesity but no direct cause and effect, said Dr. David B. Allison, director of the Nutrition Obesity Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Dr. Allison and his colleagues scoured the medical literature and found that the only long-term, carefully controlled trial that randomly assigned people to routinely eat or go without breakfast and then measured the effect on their body weight was published in 1992.

That seminal study, carried out over 12 weeks at Vanderbilt University, had mixed results. Moderately obese adults who were habitual breakfast skippers lost an average of roughly 17 pounds when they were put on a program that included eating breakfast every day. And regular breakfast eaters who were instructed to avoid eating breakfast daily lost an average of nearly 20 pounds.

Both programs included an identical amount of calories, and each caused people to lose more weight than a program in which a person’s typical breakfast habits did not change.

The study was fairly small and limited, involving only 52 overweight adult women, but it suggested that as far as breakfast is concerned, the most important factor in weight loss may be how drastically you change your routine. “Those who had to make the most substantial changes in eating habits to comply with the program achieved better results,” the authors wrote in their paper.

Basically, what the findings show is that skipping breakfast has virtually no effect on weight gain, and that either strategy works just as well.

According to the researchers, the observational literature on the matter has "gratuitously established the association, but not the causal relation, between skipping breakfast and obesity." The authors place the blame squarely on the scientists, attributing the overstated claims to:

1) biased interpretation of one's own results, 2) improper use of causal language in describing one's own results, 3) misleadingly citing others' results, and 4) improper use of causal language in citing others' work.

Ouch.

There's much more to this study, so be sure to read all of O'Conner's review and analysis.

Image: DUSAN ZIDAR/Shutterstock.