Eating a big breakfast is not linked to consuming fewer daily calories as many might think, in fact researchers in Germany found people who ate a breakfast with 400 calories more than a small breakfast tended to eat 400 more calories per day.

Their findings suggest that the myth about eating a big breakfast helping to lose weight is not true, and may have come about from misinterpretation of research that was actually saying given a fixed number of calories per day, those people who consumed more of them at breakfast tended to eat less the rest of the day.

You can read how Dr Volker Schusdziarra, from the Else-Kröner-Fresenius Center of Nutritional Medicine at the Technical University Munich, and colleagues, conducted their study in the 17 January online issue of Nutrition Journal, a BioMed Central open access journal.

Schusdziarra and colleagues said the available information about the role of breakfast energy in total daily energy intake was confusing and contradictory: research that analyzed results across a population suggests eating a high calorie breakfast leads to greater overall intake, while other studies that analysed what individuals did suggest that when people eat a higher proportion of their calories at breakfast then they eat fewer calories per day.

So to evaluate these findings they decided to do their own investigation and apply both types of analysis to the same data.

For their study they recruited 280 obese and 100 normal weight volunteers and asked them to keep food diaries and record their food intake for up to 2 weeks. Some of the participants ate a big breakfast, some had a small one, and some skipped it altogether.

The results showed that:

  • Eating more calories at breakfast was linked to greater overall daily intake in both normal weight and obese participants.
  • When breakfast was a larger proportion of daily intake, this was linked to significant reduction in daily intake only on days when fewer calories were consumed the rest of the day.
  • Statistical tests of the factors influencing daily calorie intake (correlation and multiple regression) showed that the number of calories eaten at breakfast (absolute breakfast calories) had the strongest influence.

The researchers concluded that:

“Reduced breakfast energy intake is associated with lower total daily intake.”

They wrote that overweight and obese people should consider cutting back on breakfast calories as a “simple option to improve their daily energy balance”, because the “influence of the ratio of breakfast to overall energy intake largely depends on the post-breakfast rather than breakfast intake pattern”.

Schusdziarra told the press that:

“The results of the study showed that people ate the same at lunch and dinner, regardless of what they had for breakfast.”

He said they found that a big breakfast averaging about 400 kcal more than a small breakfast resulted in a total increase of about 400 kcal over the day.

The only difference was, if someone ate a really big breakfast, they skipped a mid morning snack, but this was not enough to offset the extra calories they had already eaten.

In a statement, the researchers explained that earlier studies that suggest eating a big breakfast reduces overall daily calories are misleading. Those studies only looked at the ratio of breakfast calories to daily calories, and in this study Schusdziarra and colleagues found this ratio was more strongly affected by people eating less during the day, so their breakfast was proportionally but not absolutely, bigger.

So it would seem, according to the results of this study, that eating a big breakfast has to be followed by eating a lot less the rest of the day, to keep the calories in check if you are trying to lose weight.

Most authorities, such as the UK’s NHS guidelines stress that sensible weight loss involves eating fewer calories while cutting down on saturated fats and sugar, and eating at least 5 portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

And experts still suggest breakfast is an important meal, in that it can influence the content of our diet.

A spokeswoman for the British Dietetic Association, Sian Porter, said there is evidence that people who eat breakfast tend to follow a more balanced diet than people who skip it. They are also less likely to be overweight, they are more successful at losing weight and they are less prone to certain diseases:

“Missing breakfast may lead you to snack on less healthy foods later on in the morning and you won’t necessarily catch up nutritionally later in the day if you skip breakfast,” Porter told the BBC.

“Impact of breakfast on daily energy intake – an analysis of absolute versus relative breakfast calories.”
Volker Schusdziarra, Margit Hausmann, Claudia Wittke, Johanna Mittermeier, Marietta Kellner, Aline Naumann, Stefan Wagenpfeil, and Johannes Erdmann.
Nutrition Journal 2011, 10:5; Published online 17 January 2011

Additional source: BioMed Central (press release, 16 Jan 2011), BBC News Health (17 January 2011).

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD