For years, dieters have been told that the way to lose weight was to start the day with a hearty breakfast. Eat more in the morning and you’ll burn more calories and consume less food later in the day, nutritionists have told us.
But now a new study suggests that the only thing a big breakfast does is lard on more pounds. No matter how many calories are consumed in the morning, people eat the same size lunch and dinner — and that adds up to more total calories when the breakfast is big, according to the study, which was published in the Nutrition Journal.
If you want to lose weight, cut back on the calories you consume in the morning, concluded the team of German researchers led by Dr. Volker Schusdziarra of the Else-Kroner-Fresenius Center of Nutritional Medicine in Munich.
For the new study, Schusdziarra and his colleagues rounded up 100 normal weight volunteers and 280 obese patients who wanted help with weight loss. The researchers asked all 380 people to keep detailed food diaries, which were to include every morsel consumed during the course of 10 days in the case of the obese patients and 14 days for the normal weight volunteers.
The number of calories consumed at breakfast varied widely for individuals in both groups. A person might have a big breakfast one day and next to nothing the next. That meant breakfasts ranged from 121 to 606 calories for obese patients and from 134 to 559 calories for normal weight volunteers.
While a huge breakfast did reduce the likelihood of a late morning snack for both groups, this didn’t make a dent in the extra calories consumed by the end of the day. That is, instead of eating less at lunch or dinner, loading up on calories at breakfast increased the daily total — whether the person was normal weight or obese.
Foods that hiked up calories included bread, eggs, sausages, butter and marmalade.
'Good' breakfast, not 'big'
That doesn't mean the best way to lose weight is to skip breakfast, nutrition experts cautioned. “The message should be that you want a ‘good’ breakfast rather than a ‘big,’ breakfast,” said Dr. David Heber, a professor of medicine and director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.
Heber pointed to the fatty sugary breakfast foods consumed by people in the study — sausages, butter, marmalade. Noting that protein and fiber give you a full feeling for longer, Heber said that a better choice would be an omelet made of egg whites stuffed with steamed veggies.
The best approach is to eat small meals — 400 to 500 calories — supplemented with light snacks so you're never really hungry, said David Sarwer, an associate professor of psychology and director of clinical services at the Stunkard Weight Management Program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
“You really want to be thinking of food and calories like the gas you put in your car,” Sarwer explained. “You always want to have some gas in the tank.”
People can get into trouble with the “big breakfast” approach, Sarwer said. “Many think that they’ll fill the bill with a big three egg omelet along with hash browns and bacon, or a massive tower of pancakes,” he explained. “But that’s not a ‘big’ breakfast, it’s an enormous breakfast, one that can be as much as 30, 40 or even 60 percent of what you should be eating for the entire day.”
Ultimately, people have to realize that their bodies probably won’t do a good job of keeping track of calories, said Leslie Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.
“You have to be your own little food CPA,” Bonci said. “You really have to put a plan in place and not think your body will compensate instinctively.”
Linda Carroll is a health and science writer living in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, Health magazine and SmartMoney.