What Can Breakfast Do?

Last time out I highlighted the research challenging some of the commonly held myths regarding the ‘need’ to eat breakfast.

To summarise, the evidence does not suggest:

  • Eating breakfast helps weight loss
  • Eating breakfast speeds up metabolism
  • Skipping breakfast causes increased daily energy intake

What can breakfast do?

In the last post I also highlighted what I think breakfast is. These four points lead into why I think breakfast is important.

  1. Breakfast is a chance to consume calories.

I work with athletes. More importantly, I work predominantly with youth athletes yet to reach full maturation. I’m therefore happy to take any opportunity to increase energy intake. The 06:30 – 08:30 window before school/work/training provides a really useful feeding opportunity that I’ll advise they take advantage of. Best-case scenario they wouldn’t get another feeding window until 10:00 – 11:00, otherwise we’d be talking 12:00 – 13:00.

However, let’s look at the flip-side of this. I’m a powerlifter myself and I often work with athletes who’ll need to lose body mass at some point during the year. Skipping breakfast, and thereby removing a feeding opportunity, can be a really useful tool to reduce daily energy intake. I think breakfast is the best choice for meal skipping for two main reasons:

  1. The majority of people are either pushed for time in the morning or would appreciate some extra time in bed.
  2. If you’re at school/work/training in the morning, you’ll be busy (or at least you should be!) and less likely to focus on feelings of hunger.

There is a third reason also, but we’ll come back to that later.

  1. Breakfast is a chance to stimulate muscle protein synthesis.

The importance of protein to both athletic and general populations is well established – check out Arentson-Lantz et al. (2015), McLain et al. (2015) and Escobar et al. (2015) for some recent review articles.

Research also suggests that regular protein feedings result in greater muscle protein synthesis over the course of a day than larger doses consumed less frequently (Areta et al., 2013; Mamerow et al., 2014; Murphy et al., 2015). If you’re looking to gain muscle mass or minimise muscle loss this could be a useful feeding window for you.

  1. Breakfast is a chance to consume useful macro- and micro-nutrients.

We’ve highlighted the importance of protein above. Next on my macro list for athletes would typically be carbohydrates, although this does depends on a few factors. As a general rule, if they’ll be performing a ‘quality’ session reliant on glycolysis or competing later in the day then carbs are advised.

Indeed, a recent RCT published by Clayton et al. (2015) examined the effect of breakfast consumption on evening performance. Here are the Cliffs notes:

  • Ten male, habitual breakfast eaters completed two trials – one with a ~730 kcal breakfast and one without.
  • The breakfast skipping group consumed ~200 kcal more at lunch.
  • Conversely, the breakfast consuming group consumed ~115 kcal more at dinner.
  • Total energy consumption was ~20% lower in the breakfast skipping group.
  • Performance was tested in a 30 minute cycle test performed at 75%VO2peak performed immediately after 30 minutes of steady state cycling at 60%VO2peak.
  • Power output was 4.5% greater in the breakfast consuming group.

Getting into the nuances of how to fuel sessions in an effort to maximise performance vs adaptation is a topic that requires far more consideration. So, for now at least, we’ll park things here!

  1. Breakfast is a chance to eat and enjoy food.

Food can be a great source of pleasure, commonly associated with feelings of satisfaction and enjoyment (Desmet & Schifferstein, 2008). Starting the day with a nice little dopamine boost is certainly a good way to kick things off.

One of the biggest things I try to emphasise with my athletes is mindfulness, even in regards to food. Yes, I want them to understand what they eat and why they eat it, but also how it makes them feel. Mindful eating may help amplify the level of enjoyment associated with food (Hong et al., 2014) and could potentially be a tool to increase the consumption of ‘healthy’ foods (Robinson et al., 2012).

However, I think it’s important to stress that no food should is associated with feelings of guilt. It has been shown that associating ‘celebration’ (versus guilt) with typically off-limits food items may increase the likelihood of weight-loss (Kuijer & Boyce, 2014), but more importantly, I think it promotes a healthier relationship with food.

Get on the scoreboard early

There is one thing I’ve missed out from my four-point list though. I call it the ‘scoreboard phenomenon’.

Each day we begin with a blank slate and a fresh mind. Because the ‘breakfast’ period is the first feeding window we encounter, I think it may actually carry a little extra importance from a psychological standpoint. Think of the first five minutes of a football match. The drive off the first tee in golf. When that goes well you feel good about things.

Short-term self-efficacy

Self-efficacy theory (Bandura, 1977) highlights the importance of ‘performance accomplishments’ in shaping future behaviours. Put simply, when you succeed in accomplishing one goal, you’re more likely to succeed with the second.

Might this mean that succeeding with your breakfast goal helps you make better choices later in the day? I’m not sure the research had really evaluated this but my hunch says yes.

Breakfast piggybacking

Humans are habitual creatures. We like routine because it means we don’t have waste energy thinking about things, they just happen. Because people tend to have the most stable routine in the morning, it’s perhaps the best time to look to piggyback healthy habits.

Piggybacking refers to attaching a new behaviour onto something that’s already part of a routine. For example, whilst you wait for the kettle to boil you take out a steam-bag of mixed veg from the freezer and pop it in the microwave. Now you’ve hit an extra portion of veggies or two with almost no thought whatsoever.

Increase physical activity?

Last up, I’d like to give an honourable mention for breakfast and its potential role in increasing levels of physical activity.

In the last post, we highlighted the Betts et al. (2014) manuscript detailing findings from the Bath Breakfast Project. This study reported lean breakfast-eaters burnt more calories through physical activity thermogenesis than breakfast-skippers, about 440 kcal extra on average.

However, there was a high degree of variability in the responses of individuals. Some expended less than 90 kcal more, others in excess of 800 kcal. Moreover, this data is in free-living conditions. Knowing that you may be more likely to move less if you’re a skipper may just encourage you to be more consciously active.

Last week (Feb 10th) the same team of investigators published new data from the Bath Breakfast Project (Chowdhury et al., 2016). This time the focus was on breakfast-related energy expenditure in obese individuals. What did they discover this time out? Well, you’ll have to sign up to my Research Review service to find out!


Arentson-Lantz E, Clairmont S, Paddon-Jones D, Tremblay A, Elango R. Protein: A nutrient in focus. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism. 2015: 40: 755-761.
Areta JL, Burke LM, Ross ML, Camera DM, West DWD, Broad EM, Jeacocke NA, Moore DR, Stellingwerff T, Phillips SM, Hawley JA, Coffey VG. Timing and distribution of protein ingestion during prolonged recovery from resistance exercise alters myofibrillar protein synthesis. Journal of Physiology. 2013: 591: 2319-2331.
Bandura A. Self-efficacy: towards a unifying theory of behavioral change. 84. 1977: 2.
Betts JA, Richardson JD, Chowdhury EA, Holman GD, Tsintzas K, Thompson D. The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in lean adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2014: 100: 539-547.
Chowdhury EA, Richardson JD, Holman GD, Tsintzas K, Thompson D, Betts JA. The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in obese adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2016.
Clayton DJ, Barutcu A, Machin C, Stensel DJ, James LJ. Effect of breakfast omission on energy intake and evening exercise performance. Medicine & Science in Sport & Exercise. 2015: 47: 2645-2652.
Desmet PMA, Schifferstein HNJ. Sources of positive and negative emotions in food experience. Appetite. 2008: 50: 290-301.
Escobar KA, McLain TA, Kerksick CM. Protein applications in sports nutrition – Part II: timing and protein patterns, fat-free mass accretion, and fat Loss. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2015: 37: 22-34.
Hong PY, Lishner DA, Han KH. Mindfulness and eating: an experiment examining the effect of mindful raisin eating on the enjoyment of sampled food. Mindfulness. 2014: 5: 80-87.
Kuijer RG, Boyce JA. Chocolate cake. Guilt or celebration? Associations with healthy eating attitudes, perceived behavioural control, intentions and weight-loss. Appetite. 2014: 74: 48-54.
Mamerow MM, Mettler JA, English KL, Casperson SL, Arentson-Lantz E, Sheffield-Moore M, Layman DK, Paddon-Jones D. Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults. The Journal of Nutrition. 2014: 144: 876-880.
McLain TA, Escobar KA, Kerksick CM. Protein applications in sports nutrition – Part I: requirements, quality, source, and optimal dose. Strength & Conditioning Journal. 2015: 37: 61-71.
Murphy CH, Churchward-Venne TA, Mitchell CJ, Kolar NM, Kassis A, Karagounis LG, Burke LM, Hawley JA, Phillips SM. Hypoenergetic diet-induced reductions in myofibrillar protein synthesis are restored with resistance training and balanced daily protein ingestion in older men. American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism. 2015: 308: E734-E743.
Robinson E, Blissett J, Higgs S. Changing memory of food enjoyment to increase food liking, choice and intake. British Journal of Nutrition. 2012: 108: 1505-1510.
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  1. Great post on the importance of eating a healthy nutritious breakfast.

    I am a notorious ‘breakfast skipper’ as I’m always on the move and don’t really have the time in the morning to sit down and enjoy a proper meal.

    What are your thoughts on intermittent fasting which naturally forgoes eating breakfast in exchange for consuming all your calories within a set eating window?

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