You’ve heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But you’ve also probably heard that it’s fine to skip.
A 2019 research review published in The BMJ only adds to the debate: It analyzed 13 breakfast studies and found that eating a morning meal was not a reliable way to lose weight, and that skipping breakfast likely does not lead to weight gain.
So should you say goodbye to your eggs and toast? Here’s what the science says about breakfast.
Does eating breakfast help you lose weight?
The weight-loss question has been central to the breakfast debate for years, in part because several high-profile studies — some of which were funded by cereal companies, including Quaker and Kellogg — claimed that eating early in the day was necessary for controlling weight. When looking at research that isn’t funded by the food industry, however, the answer is less clear.
Some studies have found that breakfast eaters tend to weigh less than people who skip the meal and burn more calories throughout the day. But it’s possible that lifestyle and socioeconomic factors may be driving forces here, making a person more likely to eat breakfast and also have better overall health. For example, making time for breakfast is easier for people with 9-to-5 jobs than it is for night shift workers (who research has shown face a range of health risks).
Other research, including the new review, has found no strong connection between breakfast and weight loss. One paper from 2017 actually found that skipping breakfast may lead to more calorie burning — but also higher levels of inflammation in the body.
Despite all the back and forth, Sharon Collison, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a clinical instructor in nutrition at the University of Delaware, says she’s not aware of any studies that have shown that eating breakfast can make you gain weight — so there’s likely no harm in eating it. Anecdotally, Collison says she’s seen from her clients that “people who struggle with weight tend to eat more of their calories later in the day and less earlier in the day. People who don’t eat enough earlier in the day may have increased hunger and increased cravings later in the day and will end up eating more.” But more research is needed.
Is it unhealthy to skip breakfast?
Weight loss aside, Collison says she’s “totally pro-breakfast” and encourages the vast majority of her clients to eat it, for a range of reasons.
“People who consume breakfast regularly often have increased physical activity. They have better dietary profiles and lower intake of snacks,” Collison says. “Skipping breakfast is associated with increased disease risk — not only obesity but diabetes, heart disease and just lower dietary quality.”
One small study from 2017 suggested that breakfast-eating could improve a range of metabolic health markers, potentially improving the body’s ability to burn fat and fight chronic conditions like type 2 diabetes — at least among people who were already lean. More research is needed to know how different types of people respond to fasting, the scientists say.
But what if you’re truly not hungry in the morning? Collison says that may be indicative of other problematic eating habits, like snacking at night. “If you eliminate that snacking and then wake up hungry and eat a good breakfast, your overall dietary pattern is going to be so much better, and your health status is going to be better,” Collison says.
What’s the healthiest breakfast?
Even if you’ve decided to eat breakfast, a question remains: what should you eat? A donut and coffee, Collison says, are not going to give you the same benefits as a well-balanced plate.
Collison says a good morning meal incorporates four things: protein, whole grains, healthy fat and a fruit or vegetable. Research has shown that protein and fat can increase satiety and cut down on unnecessary snacking later, while whole grains and produce add nutritious fiber, vitamins and minerals.
Collison recommends Greek yogurt with nuts, berries and whole-grain cereal or farro; scrambled eggs with veggies, plus toast with avocado and fruit on the side; or oatmeal made with milk, nut butter and fruit. Generally, she says she steers clients away from smoothies or juices. “I do encourage people to eat their breakfast, because you just don’t get the same sense of fullness” with a liquid.
When should you eat breakfast?
The exact timing will vary depending on a person’s needs and schedule, but Collison says a good rule of thumb is to eat within an hour of waking. “It’s kind of like putting gas in your car,” Collison says.
If you’re going to work out in the morning, plan to eat something beforehand. “The quality of your workout could be compromised if you don’t fuel your body before,” Collison says. “The closer it is to the physical activity, the more you want carbohydrates and less fat and fiber, because that will take longer to digest.” Collison recommends a banana, oatmeal or cereal.
If you’ve done a vigorous workout, like running, for 45 minutes or more, you’ll likely need to eat again afterward for recovery. Something that replenishes fluid, carbs and protein — like chocolate milk — is a good option, as is a banana with peanut butter or cheese, crackers and fruit. A recovery meal probably isn’t necessary if you’ve done lighter exercise, like walking, Collison says.