Skipping Breakfast for Weight Loss: The Science of Going Without

Skipping breakfast; portrayed by many as ‘unhealthy’ due to breakfast being coined as the most important meal of the day. The lack of nutrient and calorie provision during sleep would highlight the first meal upon awakening as being important for numerous reasons; to reduce energy and lethargy, improve mental focus and cognition, manage hunger levels and improve appetite control with the aim of eliminating overeating in the latter parts of the day. It’s also been suggested that skipping breakfast will reduce your metabolic rate, place you in ‘fat storage’ mode, increase your stress hormone; cortisol, and increase catabolic processes which results in muscle loss. With all of this in mind, skipping breakfast has been thought to be detrimental to both health and body composition and should not be part of nutrition guidelines.
Skipping breakfast is also known as a dieting approach called intermittent fasting; essentially extending the ‘fasting window’ past breakfast and continuing through to lunch or dinner. When a diet is given a name, it is often thought to be known as a fad – However, many dieting approaches do have legitimate scientific rationale to support its efficacy. It’s only when the facts and rationale become distorted by time they reach the main stream media where marketing strategies overcome the science and becomes lost in translation which leads to the origin of a ‘fad diet’.

INTERMITTENT FASTING

Contrary to what the media has dogmatised, skipping breakfast isn’t ‘bad’ what so ever for many individuals.  To cover the ‘anti-fasting’ claims; Skipping meals or breakfast will not place the body in starvation mode, decrease metabolic rate, increase cortisol (one study showed a decrease) or cause you to overeat in the afternoon. Granted, individuals who are habitual breakfast skippers tend to have a higher BMI, however this has been identified through association, not causality. Therefore many factors can play a role in these associative characteristics.  In clinical trials, once breakfast skippers are paired against breakfast consumers, weight loss is greater in the breakfast skippers due to a reduction in caloric intake – In some instances, breakfast skippers appear to move around less and expend less energy during periods of fasting in a compensatory manner to preserve energy. Therefore, it would be pragmatic to be mindful of energy expenditure and levels of activity during this period – That being said, most calorie restricted scenarios evoke the same ‘lazy’ response.
From a body composition perspective, when a standardised calorie restricted diet is compared with a calorie restricted intermittent type diet, both diets induce weight and fat loss. However (and most interestingly), the intermittent diet preserved the most lean mass, which disproves the statement that intermittent fasting and breakfast skipping is catabolic. Furthermore and anecdotally, breakfast skippers (including myself and clients) report better concentration and mental focus. Furthermore, other studies have displayed significant improvements in health markers to help resist disease – however are mostly performed in animal models where evidence in humans is lacking. Therefore many, many more studies are required before conclusions can be made regarding this topic.

Who should adopt an intermittent fasting diet?

When looking at providing guidance and recommendations on a certain nutrition approach or supplement, it’s always important to look at the body of evidence as a whole and refrain from cherry picking certain research articles to support a bias and dogmatism. With regards to dieting types, the data would generally suggest that both intermittent fasting and standardised calorie restrictions are effective with regards to improving health and body composition. Total calorie intake will determine whether fat is gained or lost, not the frequency and timing of meals. Therefore, I have no bias in what method an individual wishes to take -personal preference, and in some situations, training schedule and goals guide the decision.

A SIDE NOTE

The only people who should avoid this approach are; pregnant women, growing children, athletes with high training demands in the morning, individuals who want to optimise muscle gain and individuals who actually like eating breakfast. Other than the aforementioned population, everyone else may benefit from skipping breakfast. Here are the ‘tell tale’ signs;  individuals who simply don’t like having breakfast nor have time, individuals who aren’t hungry in the morning and would rather 30 minutes extra in bed, those who already skip breakfast, those who wish to lose body fat and those who wish to partake in low energy availability training, such as ‘train low’.

FAT LOSS

As mentioned, energy balance and calorie intake dictates fat loss and fat gain. Therefore if you consume more energy you expend during the eating period, then you will still gain body fat. Intermittent fasting isn’t miraculous, it’s simply a method used to further decrease calorie intake. Therefore, being mindful of the main priority of fat loss nutrition is essential. For example, a habitual breakfast eater who removes a 600kcal breakfast may benefit from skipping this meal to reduce calorie intake and induce a calorie deficit – nothing magical, just a method of reducing calorie intake.
When working with clients, I like to introduce intermittent fasting as a strategy during the latter phases of a diet. An issue with long term diets is that the calorie deficit can become unmanageable towards the latter phases – In some instances, further calorie restrictions are required to overcome metabolic adaptations and plateaus to weight loss. Given the scenario, the main priority is to make this phase as sustainable as possible for higher compliance and adherence– During this period rates of attrition are typically higher due to increased hunger levels and food choices becoming too restrictive. Intermittent fasting doesn’t dictate food choices, it can however aid with hunger management. For example, if an individual were to follow a large calorie restriction and consume 1,500 calories per day – Instead of consuming five 300kcal meals and always have subjectively higher hunger levels, they could opt to choose and follow three 500kcal meals, two 750kcal meals, or even one 1,500kcal meal. They are already hungry; why not only feel hungry in the morning through fasting, as opposed to all day via grazing? Anecdotally, this method works very well given the scenario.
Given the anabolic effects of a protein containing meal and its role on muscle remodelling, a gap will appear due to the absence of said meal during the morning period whilst fasting – therefore missing an anabolic event may not be ‘optimal’ for individuals looking to maximise their training adaptation. Supplementing with branch chain amino acids (BCAA) will help overcome this anabolic gap whilst being low enough in calories not to interfere with the calorie sparing effects of skipping breakfast. This could be seen as adding icing to the cake per se’.

APPLICATION

As mentioned previously, there are numerous ways to implement fasting as it is essentially characterised as an extended period of going without food. Let personal preferences guide your decisions whilst ensuring that nutrient requirements are met at sine point during the day in order to avoid deficiencies. Popular approaches to trial and experiment with are;
  • Alternate Day Fasting (ADF) – 36 hour fast: 12 hour feed.
  • Eat Stop Eat – 24 hour fast once or twice per week.
  • Warrior Diet – 20 hours fast: 4 hours feed.
  • Lean Gains – 16 hours fast: 8 hours feed (Preferred and recommended for fasting ‘newbies’)
All have merit and are effective. Finally, even if intermittent type dieting isn’t for you, it does highlight that skipping a meal won’t be detrimental to body composition goals or health and that you have a viable tool in the tool box in case a scenario arises where you may need to adopt a different approach to meet your daily requirements.

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