For weight loss, breakfast may not matter so much.
Credit: Illustration: Sarah Wilkins

Oftentimes we hear that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as it's assumed to jump-start metabolism and regulate the appetite. But recent studies point to the possibility that these thoughts have been overblown. What if breakfast is really just another meal? What if we—gasp!—skipped it every now and then?

According to a 2013 study reported in Physiology and Behavior, a group of 24 college students was divided in half: Part were told to eat a regular breakfast, while the rest did not eat any breakfast. All were fed a buffet-style lunch with no limits. Although the skippers reported being hungrier, they didn't eat more calories to compensate when lunch rolled around—and, in fact, wound up consuming around 400 fewer calories on days they skipped than did the breakfast eaters.

A recent study at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (disclosure: our columnist David B. Allison, PhD, was the principal investigator) went a step further. Their study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, followed an international group of 309 participants over four months. What they found: Eating breakfast had zero effect on weight. "Breakfast has calories, too," Allison says. "Eating those calories is likely to help you lose or gain weight only if you eat less (or move more) to compensate, and current data suggest that is not what happens."

Part of the false reasoning behind equating eating breakfast with weight loss has been the correlation that shows that people who regularly eat it tend to be thinner than those who skip it. The mistake has been to conclude that eating breakfast equals a lower body weight.

Regardless of how this changes your view of breakfast's importance, these studies pave the way for a deeper look into how the meal works for our bodies. There's more to be learned about how skipping breakfast affects mood or concentration levels, and, sure, it's possible that lower energy levels could make one less likely to hit the gym later. Most dietitians agree, however, that a nutritious breakfast with whole grains and a little healthy fat can be the right way to start your day. Another tip? Have a healthy snack available should hunger strike hard.

As with many things diet-related, you have to find what works for you, as long as you don't lose sight of the big picture (calories in, calories out). But rest easy: While skipping breakfast might lead to a grumbling stomach, it doesn't make or break diet success.