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Is Breakfast Really Your Most Important Meal?

By Rita Rubin
WebMD Health News

Sept. 2, 2014-- Your mother might've told you breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Some recent reports, though, might make you think Mom’s take on breakfast is about as credible as other old wives’ tales.

The reports that challenge the importance of breakfast say most studies linking it to a smaller waistline and improved health have been observational. Observational studies can’t prove cause and effect, though.

Skeptics wonder whether some other quality common in breakfast-eaters -- or breakfast-skippers, for that matter -- might have a greater impact on their health and weight than the meal itself. Researchers also say how the studies are done may explain the conflicting results.

Several scientists who’ve studied the relationship between eating breakfast and health -- all of whom said they eat breakfast daily -- helped us sort it out.

Q. If I want to lose weight, why not skip breakfast? After all, two meals have fewer calories than three.

A. The desire to lose weight is one of the most frequently cited reasons for skipping breakfast. But many observational studies have found that people who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight. The theory is that they more than make up for the missed calories in the morning by eating more at lunch or snacking all day.

But a study published in June challenged these beliefs. The study was a randomized controlled trial, considered the gold standard of medical research. In this type of study, volunteers don’t get to decide whether they eat breakfast, but are instead randomly assigned to either eat it or not.

The study showed that when people skip breakfast, “overall, there’s still a similar intake or a lesser intake (of calories) over the whole day,” says researcher Krista Casazza, PhD, RD. 

Another small randomized trial published by Cornell University researchers in Physiology & Behavior in 2013 found that college students ate about 145 calories more at lunch when they ate nothing in the morning than they did on a day when they ate breakfast. Considering that their breakfasts averaged about 625 calories, skipping it still resulted in a savings of about 450 calories by day’s end, according to the study.

Whether that calorie deficit lasts for more than a few days and leads to weight loss remains to be seen,  says Harvard School of Public Health researcher Rania Mekary, PhD. “Your metabolic rate might end up decreasing,” she says. “If you starve yourself, you might lose weight, but is that something good long-term?”

Researchers point out that randomized trials have shortcomings, as well. They are often small and last only a few days.

The bottom line is that while research hasn’t shown eating breakfast can lead to weight loss, neither does it show that eating breakfast makes you pack on the pounds,  says Heather Leidy, PhD. She's an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri School of Medicine.

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