Is Breakfast Really the Most Important Meal of the Day?

Re-examining a Common Breakfast Belief in the Health World

By Michael Ormsbee, Ph.D., Florida State University
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

We’ve all heard the cliché that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but how accurate is this belief? As it turns out, most studies that equate eating breakfast with weight loss are solely observational. In order to better understand the truth behind this popular belief, The Great Courses talked with Michael Ormsbee, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences at Florida State University.

Breakfast foods on table
When deciding whether there are health benefits to eating breakfast, determine whether you are looking at observational data or scientific data. Photo by monticello / Shutterstock

Why Is Breakfast So Important?

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day? You’ve probably heard this phrase over and over for your entire life. 

But why is it so important, and what happens if you skip it? 

Breakfast is an essential meal because it gives you the energy you need to start the day. You literally are breaking the overnight fast. 

Eating breakfast has also been shown as contributing to many health benefits, such as weight control, improved physical and cognitive performance, and improved metabolic biomarkers. 

The Link between Breakfast and Weight Loss

However, chances are that you know someone who seems to be very healthy, but doesn’t really take the time to eat breakfast.

As it turns out, researchers can’t agree either. Several observational studies have reported that people who skip breakfast tend to weigh more overall, which may seem counterintuitive. 

For example, if you want to lose weight, eating two meals instead of eating three meals means you’re eating fewer calories, doesn’t it? Well, not necessarily.

One theory is that breakfast skippers tend to get hungrier faster and, therefore, eat more calories later on, throughout the day, than regular breakfast eaters would. The theory goes like this: Skipping breakfast results in spending the rest of your day making up for those missed calories, resulting in overcompensating, and eventually leading to excess, unwanted weight gain. 

However, most of these reports have come strictly from observational studies, with little data from an experimental cause-and-effect setting. This means that many other factors could contribute to the weight gain, aside from just not eating breakfast.

Surprising Results from Randomly Controlled Trials

So, in contrast to the common belief that skipping breakfast always leads to weight gain, randomized, controlled research trials have actually shown that these common theories and myths about breakfast are hard to confirm.

For example, when two groups of overweight individuals were randomly assigned to either eat breakfast or refrain from eating breakfast, there was no effect on the amount of weight lost in each of the groups. 

Another randomly controlled trial with lean individuals showed that skipping breakfast did not cause weight gain, nor did it lead to changes in resting metabolic rate. The number of calories burned at rest that are required to sustain their basic physiological functions was also unaffected.

Also, the overall daily caloric intake was the same whether the lean subjects ate breakfast or not, which means that skipping breakfast did not lead to eating more over the next few meals.

One interesting difference, though, was that both afternoon and evening blood glucose levels were more stable in the group who ate breakfast as compared to those who fasted until noon, and stable blood glucose is usually a great sign for good metabolic functioning. In fact, if blood sugar is consistently high, this can lead to a host of other issues, including insulin resistance and even diabetes.

Breakfast: The Takeaway

In short, there is no clear-cut answer in the research indicating that breakfast is the key to gaining or losing weight or improving body composition.

“Oftentimes, I’m asked, ‘Should I eat breakfast?’ and my answer is, ‘Well, do you like breakfast?'” said Dr. Michael Ormsbee, Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences at Florida State University. “I do this because what I’ve seen is that the key to making lasting improvements in body composition comes from working small exercise and nutrition habits into someone’s lifestyle, rather than flipping their lives upside down from the start.”

The bottom line is that whether you eat breakfast or skip it, every bit of food you eat has a dramatic impact on your body composition, your health, and how you feel.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Dr. Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University.

Michael Ormsbee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food, and Exercise Sciences and Interim Director of the Institute of Sports Sciences and Medicine in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University. He received his MS in Exercise Physiology from South Dakota State University and his PhD in Bioenergetics from East Carolina University.