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Want to lose weight? Maybe skip breakfast

  |   Diet, Gimmicks   |   22 Comments

“Eat breakfast like a king and supper like a pauper” – They say.

“Don’t eat too much at night because they will be converted to fat” – They tell you.

Who are “they?” Well, basically every single person out there who’s just repeating what they heard someone say somewhere ‘that one time’ (this goes for fitness and health magazines as well).

Here’s the question I’m posing here…

If eating big meals in the morning and smaller ones at night is supposed to make it easier for you to lose weight, then why are swarms of professional athletes and bodybuilders converting to an intermittent fasting regimen or similar? (more on this later).

Why have I managed to lose 60 pounds in 7 months while eating almost exclusively at night and skipping breakfast?

But, most of all, why are there no clinical trials that confirm that regularly eating a solid breakfast while reducing late-night calorie intake helps you lose weight quicker and healthier? In fact, the only research that exists in this area seems to prove the exact opposite.

Let’s go into a bit more detail on all of this, but first – a little background as to where I believe this myth originated from.

Where the issue originated

There are quite a few clinical trials out there which seem to conclude that people who regularly eat large breakfasts while only consuming small meals at night tend to be, on average, leaner than those who do the opposite.

The main problem with all of this though is that, after reviewing other research in the field (examples in a moment), it becomes apparent that the conclusions described above are simply a case of confusing correlation with causation. Simply because two things are connected to each other does not mean that one of them is the result of the other. Here’s an absurd example, just to illustrate my point:

A group of anxious researchers sets out to determine why it is that people living in rural areas seem to have more dental problems than urban dwellers. To do that, they decided to monitor the daily habits of people working as farmers for a living. After careful examination, they noticed one thing they’ve all got in common: they all work 15 hours a day! On the other hand, people living in larger cities work only 7-8 hours a day.

The next day we see the same headline in all major newspapers:

Working more than 8 hours a day increases risk of developing dental problems!

Obviously, this would have been a bunch of baloney. The real reason why those people had serious dental issues has nothing to do with how much they work, and everything to do with the availability of dental care to people living in rural areas.

This is a perfect example of what I believe happened when it comes to assuming that habitual breakfast eaters / late-night-eating skippers are leaner than those who do the opposite.

My guess is that the people who eat a lot in the morning and less at night simply have a better-organized daily schedule, pay more attention to how they feel and to their own health, and that is why they are leaner. Again – correlation does not imply causality.

Mark, you talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?

Let’s begin with this: Weight loss is greater with consumption of large morning meals and fat-free mass is preserved with large evening meals in women on a controlled weight reduction regimen.

The conclusion: Women who ate larger morning meals lost slightly more weight, however the ones who ate bigger late-afternoon meals preserved more muscle mass. Put another way – and this is also stated in the abstract – those who ate more calories later in the day lost more pure fat and less lean muscle mass.

Here’s another one: Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner.

The conclusion: Obese people who ate the majority of their carbohydrates in the evening saw greater weight, waist circumference, and total body fat reduction. This probably has to do with increased leptin levels in the body, which obviously helps regulate hunger and makes it more likely that one will stick to a calorie deficit diet.

Let’s take a look at what happens to people who fast during the holy day of Ramadan

Here’s one: Ramadan fasting’s effect on plasma leptin, adiponectin concentrations, and body composition in trained young men..

The conclusion: Ramadan fasting was associated with a reduction of body mass and body fat (R2 vs. C, p < .01) without significant change in leptin or adiponectin levels

Let’s go a little crazy and see what the research has to say about people who employ alternate day fasting, meaning they binge on one day, and eat nothing the next day, while of course making sure that their weekly calorie intake is still below their total energy expenditure:

Alternate-day fasting in nonobese subjects: effects on body weight, body composition, and energy metabolism.

The result? Alternate-day fasting increased fat oxidation in non-obese subjects. Obviously this kind of approach is not for everyone as fasting for an entire day can be very difficult from a hunger-control point of view, however the main point still stands – it is very much possible to lose fat while employing a very controversial meal frequency setup.

Yes, that’s a lot of trials to take a look at, but… here’s another one!

Chronobiological aspects of weight loss in obesity: effects of different meal timing regimens.

Again, obese subjects who consumed most of their calories during early-evening hours demonstrated increased fat oxidation.

I really could go on like that all day, but I’ll stop here.

Do you see a pattern here? If any is to be found, it is that meal timing has virtually no impact on weight loss, and if any impact exists – it seems to be in favor of those who consume the majority of their calories later in the day.

bacon and eggs

Maybe save this meal for your lunch instead :)

My own story

Back in the days when I was struggling with how to lose weight, I came across intermittent fasting. It appeared that this approach was being used to great success by many seasoned bodybuilders and athletes.

The idea was simple: fast for 16-20 hours, then consume all of your calories for the day within a 4-8 hour window.

I went for a 16 / 8 system, wherein I would eat my first meal of the day at 5 PM, the last meal of the day at 11 PM, with around 75% of my calories (1,400 of 1,900) being consumed after 9 PM. I would typically go to sleep at midnight, give or take 30 minutes.

After 7 months of following this approach, I was able to shed 60 pounds of almost pure fat. My lean body mass virtually didn’t change, meaning that I had not lost almost a single pound of muscle mass in the process. After the cut most people were asking me what on earth was it that I did to get that much muscle, but the fact is I didn’t gain any at all – I simply managed to keep all of it during my weight loss journey.

Would I have been able to do that if I was eating a regular king-sized breakfast and queen-sized lunch?

Probably yes.

To be honest I don’t believe it would have made an ounce of a difference, as long as I made sure to consume the proper amount of calories per week.

Conclusion

For the purpose of weight loss, it won’t make any difference if you eat 8 meals a day spaced out evenly, 3 meals a day spaced out evenly, one small meal in the morning and another huge one right before going to sleep, or any other breakdown you can come up with.

In the end, only one thing will matter: are you eating less calories per week than what your body is burning?

If you are, you will lose the weight.

If you aren’t, you won’t lose weight.

And no amount of meal-time planning or clever food selections will change that.

AUTHOR - Mark Nazzal

Mark Nazzal is an online 1 on 1 weight loss and fitness coach who will make sure the job gets done, and done right.

  • Thanks for posting this Clint!

    If anyone has questions – let me know, I’m up for a discussion :)

    • Lee

      Mark,
      I’ve been doing IF for over a year now, but always playing about with my macro ratio…Higher carb and higher calories on training days, higher fat/lower calories on non-training days. What do you recommend? And is it difference if bulking verses cutting? I recently lowered my protein a bit to keep my carbs and fats a bit higher- haha, because food tasty better and I hear a higher carb and fat ratio is correlated with increased testosterone. Can I get your thoughts?

  • First off, awesome job on losing 60lbs and maintaining lean muscle. That should be the main goal of any program and not simply “weight loss”.

    I am glad that you acknowledged that you could of lost that much fat while eating breakfast. The thing I appreciate the most about intermittent fasting is that it helps kill the meal frequency myth.

    Intermittent fasting works, just like low carb and low fat diets do to, but I am not convinced this is because of the magic fasting powers, but more because as you mention you create a weekly calorie deficit.

    The main thing that bugs me about intermittent fasting is that some people think calories don’t matter and end up splurging and thinking it will all be burned while in the fasted state. Wrong.

    They also skip eating in the morning, when they are actually hungry, which in my opinion is just silly. If you are hungry, just eat and readjust your calories accordingly for the rest of the day.

    Sometimes I eat breakfast, and sometimes I don’t. The fact is when you are losing fat, you are going to get hungry from time to time anyway, there is no way to totally avoid this but plenty of ways to minimise it.

    • Thanks Mike.

      Yup I’m pretty sure I would have had the exact same effect even if I was eating breakfast, though I think it could have gone a little slower because I would have been more hungry in the evening and, as a result, more prone to over-eating. Skipping breakfast actually becomes really easy once one gets used to it – I actually find it somewhat hard to force myself to eat breakfast now :)

      The goal of this article was to make sure people kept on trying to think outside the box, and to help people realize just how much BS there is floating around in our industry (which I’m more than sure Clint, as well as many regular readers of his blog, very well know).

  • Hallelujah Clint. It’s a tough sell, there’s lots of naysayers that will find some way to poke a hole in the truth, but that doesn’t change the fact that this IS the truth. Calories in vs. Calories out wins the battle every time.

    thanks. Keep on preaching. I’m behind ya all the way.
    Jackie

  • Maria

    Loved this article……had to share it with some friends!!

  • Mark congrats on your awesome weight loss and good on you Clint for putting another story out there showing people that IF is a viable option when you are trying to lose body fat whilst maintaining muscle.

    • Thanks a lot :) It was actually quite fun to do, nothing I would consider challenging. And I’m not saying that in a sense of “I’m so awesome,” more like “when you know how to do it, it’s quite simple.”

  • Clint/Mark,

    Great post. I’ve been practicing IF for a while now and I’m convinced it’s the easiest way to generate a calorie deficit without severely restricting what you eat. This is what makes it sustainable long-term.

    Alykhan

    • I’ve been on IF for a preeeetty long time now (not following any precise hours anymore though, I just don’t eat for 5-6 hours after waking up… just haven’t got the habit anymore), and I routinely take blood tests and free testosterone level assesment tests, once every 4-5 months or so. My markers are excellent, even better than before in many cases (particularly testosterone). Definitely not due to IF, but I’m convinced it played a role as well.

    • Agree 100%. It’s the restriction that makes a lot of diet strategies fail for most people.

  • By the way, would love to hear how others here have handled the breakfast thing when getting onto an IF program.

    Did it take you long to get used to not eating breakfast? Was it tough?

    • Tim

      For me it was easy as hell… Been doing it for a while now and went from 101,6kg last march to 88,9kg last wednesday… Been very strict on my diet and I purely eat between 1pm and 9pm… Although I don’t really keep thing as strict as on IF, because I like to simplify things and it works! I went from 92,5kg to 88,9kg in 4 weeks, yes I know looks a bit to much, but I haven’t lost strength at all (I even got stronger) and kept my proteins high, so can’t be a lot of muscle weight. Besides my belly circumcise went from 92cm to 84cm, so there’s your answer…

      I’m all for skipping your breakfast (And I even study Nutrition and Dietetics)

      • “Easy as hell” is a very good way to put it :) Took me personally 2-3 days I think. If I wanted to eat breakfast now, I’d actually have to force it me thinks.

        I hope you didn’t really have your belly circumcised! :D just messing with you bro. an 8 cm loss when going from 92,5kg to 88,9kg? That sounds like a massive loss if measured properly, huge congrats!

        Actually I don’t think going from 92,5 to 88,9kg in 4 weeks is too much at all. My weight loss rate was more or less the same as this for around 3-4 months IIRC, and I managed to increase my strength for squats / stiff-legged deadlifts by 70% over that time (was a beginner lifter back then with relatively small lifts, so there was tons of room for improvement). 0.8% – 1% of your total body weight per week is an awesome weight loss rate to go for I think. Haven’t tried going faster than that, but everything I’ve read and seen points to it not being too good for the muscles (have never been able to really determine whether it’s true or not).

        Actually.. check this out: Effect of two different weight-loss rates on body composition and strength and power-related performance in elite athletes. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21558571

        From this it would seem that even a 1.4% of BW / week weight loss rate is still good enough to preserve muscle, at least over a short 5 week period and in elite athletes. Then again, who knows what “extras” those elite athletes might have been taking :)

        How is your weight loss rate now Tim, after 9 months?

  • Great read. IF has really been the only “diet” I’ve been able to follow long-term. Give it a try people

  • Great advice. I use intermittent fasting all the time. In fact I just finished a 48 hour fast this evening. It was my longest fast by far. I have gotten great results from fasting.

    • Penelope

      while on your 48hour fast did you feel tired/drained? and also, did you find yourself more aware of what you had to drink during that time?
      Which brings me to another question to everyone- daily water intake amount? I tend to be a coffee gal and just drink water when thirsty and by what ‘they say’ I dont drink enough but just dont seem to be able stomach drinking that much water on regular basis…whats the thoughts?

  • Penelope

    In case this is of help to anyone- due to my work and life style I had very irregular meal times, irregular amounts, lots of skipped meals and plenty of binges too. Rarely took time to eat breakfast (that wasted precious sleep time lol) and grabbed something to eat when I could or could be bothered but I did eat evening meal most days (and a BIG meal). If I didnt eat much one day and heaps on another it never concerned me (perhaps doing intermittent fasting by sheer accident lol). The years rolled on and even though I stopped working, became a stay home mum and could eat whenever I wanted, I tended to not feel like eating at regular times and very rarely in the morning (if ever!). And often skipped lunch also ate at 11am then nothing until evening etc. I often had people make comment about how much I eat while they witness my ‘feeding frenzy’ which is most dinner times lol and they dont understand how I can eat so much and not be obese. I always just said ‘must be genetics’ or I have ‘good metabolism’ or something as I didnt know how to explain it. I had no set ritual for a meal time which seemed abnormal to others but it was totally normal for me :P
    “Mind over matter’ had been my theory mixed in with ‘demand feed’. I eat when I want not when the clock says its time, Im also not frightened to feel full or to feel hunger..’Think thin’ and you will change opinion of yourself, boost confidence, be more active and not be a slave to food. You are the BOSS! This is simplistic way of explaining what I mean by ‘mind over matter’ and sure it does not make weight drop off like magic by mind power alone but for some this may be a good tool to help you reach goal weight by reaching right mind set first. Then the ‘irregularity’ I mentioned, maybe I was doing a good weightloss plan without realizing it. And I assure you it wasnt from sitting at my pc lol (I dont do gyms etc, sounds like hard work=pass :P) so it wasnt from physical activities or from a low fat diet….if Im going eat butter, I eat REAL butter, REAL cream, none the ‘diet’ alternatives as I just prefer the taste tbh, so it wasnt from my food itself…
    maybe I need to join a case study, surely my lifetime of apparently bad habits according to ‘they say’ people..let them explain it then. lol
    *note, I had 4 children and ate like a pig during each pregnancy and gained plenty, it was 24/7 eating lol. But after baby born I would go back to my normal eating, my normal ‘irregularity’ and weight would fall off again.
    Hope this helped…From what I understand I really had been unintentionally doing intermittent fasting of sorts without realizing it and it worked for me, imagine if I had a clue and plan to go by!

  • This would kill me. Eterneal fatness instead!

  • ted wagner

    I did IF 2 years ago and I wasn’t ready to give myself over to it completely, so I was always hungry and crabby. I dropped 13 pounds and got to almost where I wanted to be, but I was so tired of it I fell off the wagon and never fully got back on. I switched to a 5-6x/day meal plan where I was eating 300-400 calories per meal, but that is a logistical pain in the ass. I am redoing IF now with a proper mindset and I feel awesome. I am a little nervous because I train at 5:00AM and my eating window is from noon to 8:00PM, but I’ll see how it goes. As an aside, since I started this, I have said goodbye to coffee. I am so flipping wired in the AM now that I am not eating, I find that I don’t need any caffeine.

  • Green Deane

    It was Adelle Davis who wrote eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, supper like a pauper.