Skipping breakfast may not sabotage your waistline after all, a small, new study suggests.
For years, people have been told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and that missing it would encourage them to eat more later and pack on the pounds as a result.
Now, a study of 24 normal-weight college students suggests that you may actually consume fewer calories if you skip breakfast. The findings are published in the July issue of the journal Physiology and Behavior.
But several nutritionists were quick to caution that there are other important reasons to eat breakfast every day, and that the new findings don't apply to everyone.
As part of the study, researchers either fed breakfast to or withheld breakfast from a group of students. Half of the participants ate breakfast regularly, while the other half did not.
They then measured how many calories the participants consumed during the rest of the day. Lunch was served buffet-style, and they were allowed to eat as much as they wanted.
Students who ate breakfast regularly were hungrier on the days they skipped the meal, but they did not overcompensate by eating more at lunch or at any other time during the day. They actually consumed 408 fewer calories on the days they bypassed the morning meal.
"If you are a breakfast eater and we take it away, you will be hungrier, but you won't overeat at subsequent meals," said study author Dr. David Levitsky, a professor of nutritional sciences and psychology at Cornell University. "You can skip breakfast and not feel that you will become overweight."
School-aged children are advised to eat breakfast so they can concentrate in class; the new study did not look at how skipping breakfast affects the ability to learn and think.
Christine Santori, lead nutritionist at the Center for Weight Management at Syosset Hospital in Syosset, N.Y., said it's caloric quality that is important to overall health and weight control, not just caloric intake.
"I have found ... that those who skip breakfast and go into the rest of the day very hungry tend to make high-fat choices, with compromised fruit and vegetable intake," Santori said.
Skipping breakfast also can lead to feelings of low energy and fatigue, which may result in lower overall activity levels. "For overall health, well being and weight control, I recommend consuming a healthy breakfast daily," she said.
The new study also was conducted on normal-weight individuals and may not translate to overweight or obese people, Santori said. "Skipping meals as a behavior has been strongly linked to obesity," she said.
A recent study in the journal Circulation showed that men who skip breakfast may be more likely to have a heart attack than men who eat breakfast every morning. The study authors speculated that missing the morning meal leads to weight gain and other heart disease risk factors associated with obesity.
"The [Cornell] study does not change my recommendation to start the day with breakfast," said registered dietitian Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis. The study was small and took place in a lab, so the findings can't be generalized to real-life eating settings, she said.
Another expert agreed.
"Based on this small study, we can't say that it doesn't matter whether you eat breakfast as far as weight control goes for the average person," said Nancy Copperman, director of public health initiatives at the North Shore-LIJ Health System in Great Neck, N.Y. "There are many reasons why you should eat breakfast that are not related to caloric intake."