When it comes to losing weight, you’ve got numerous strategies that you know work, including: Eating more plant-based foods. Exercising more. Getting more sleep. and cutting out junk food, simple carbs, and alcohol. Once you've checked those boxes a looming question remains:  What about breakfast? Should we eat early upon waking, or start the day by elongating our window of fasting, pushing off our first meal until later?

That’s become the million-dollar question for dieters who know that intermittent fasting has gained in popularity. As simple as it sounds, breakfast is a controversial topic. Granted, your mom always told you it was the most important meal of the day, and for some people, it is. Studies even show it may help people shed pounds.

Yet truth be told, breakfast may not be the universal weight loss strategy it’s touted to be. What’s more, it may not be the breakfast itself that matters the most but rather, when you eat your first meal. Confused? Experts schuss out the breakfast debate below.

How breakfast impacts health

There’s a reason that breakfast gets touted as the most important meal, namely because science supports it. “Many studies have linked eating breakfast to better health outcomes, including being at a healthier weight, having lower cholesterol levels, and reducing the risk of diabetes and heart disease,” says Charlotte Martin, a Registered Dietitian in Baltimore, Md., and author of The Plant Forward Solution. A study from The Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who skip breakfast have an increased risk of death from heart disease, prompting researchers to recommend eating breakfast for heart health.

Data also suggests that breakfast skippers have a lower quality diet than breakfast eaters. Case in point: In a study from the journal Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, researchers analyzed the diets of over 30,000 adults and found that breakfast skippers missed out on valuable nutrients.

“Adults who skipped breakfast had significantly poorer diet quality for the day of intake than those who consumed breakfast,” they write in the study. Without breakfast, they were less likely to meet dietary recommendations for nutrients like calcium, folate, B vitamins, and vitamins A, C, and D. As a result, researchers concluded that breakfast is indeed an important way to add valuable nutrition to the day.

Breakfast and the link to weight loss

One of the best examples of how breakfast impacts weight comes from the National Weight Control Registry, a research study of over 10,000 individuals aged 18 and older who have lost at least 30 pounds and maintained that loss for a year or longer. Among this group, 78 percent say they eat breakfast every day.

Other evidence shows that breakfast skippers tend to weigh more than breakfast lovers. For instance, in this study from Obesity Science & Practice, those who skipped breakfast had greater increases in waist circumference and body mass index every year over a five-year period versus those who embraced the breakfast habit.

Add a good dose of protein to that morning meal, and you’ll help control hunger hormones, according to a study in the International Journal of Obesity. As such, “you’ll eat fewer calories throughout the rest of the day, which can help with weight loss and weight maintenance,” Martin says.

What time should you eat breakfast?

While there is research to support breakfast, much of the research is observational and relies on participants’ recording their food intake, which can be an issue. “It’s difficult, even impossible, to disentangle a single health behavior from the multitude of other lifestyle and dietary factors that influence weight loss and weight management, even when researchers attempt to adjust for these confounding factors,” Martin says, adding that this leaves many unanswered questions. Does breakfast really help with weight or do other lifestyle factors that breakfast eaters follow influence weight loss and healthy weight maintenance?

Although valid, these questions may actually be mute, given that there’s an even more important variable to consider: The timing of your first meal. “Science now shows that where you’re going to drop the weight is in the when factor,” says Pamela Peeke, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and author of The Hunger Fix. “It’s not about hopping out of bed and running to the kitchen to stuff your face but rather, looking at the time first and determining if it’s appropriate for you to have something to eat.”

That starts by factoring in the time of your last meal of the day, and it’s hopefully not late. “If you’re eating after eight (p.m.), you will gain weight,” Peeke says.

Once you’ve eaten dinner, you should close your kitchen and practice intermittent fasting, essentially time-restricted eating. “If you don’t change anything but this, you will lose weight,” Peeke says, pointing to a study she co-authored in the journal Nature in which she and her colleagues evaluated the efficacy of a 14-hour fast on body weight. When individuals followed the eight-week program, eating for 10 hours and fasting for 14 hours combined with a commercial weight loss program, they lost a significant amount of weight. “This follows your natural 24-hour circadian rhythms,” Peeke says. As a result, you’ll have improved insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control, both of which can help reduce weight.

If 14 hours seems too long, then 12 hours is just as beneficial, Peeke says. That means if you eat dinner at 7 p.m, the earliest you would eat breakfast is 7 a.m. Just don’t stretch your fasting period beyond 16 hours or else you’ll have to give up a meal, which will be problematic.

Creating a healthy breakfast

While there’s no magic in what you eat, it’s best to focus on whole unprocessed foods, says Peeke who loves eating green smoothies with pea protein and flax and chia seeds for her morning meal. Just make sure your plant-based breakfast includes lean protein, slow carbs, and healthy fats, Martin says.

For instance, breakfast proteins include beans, tofu, and meatless sausage while you might choose fruit, whole grains, and sweet potatoes, which count as slow-release carbs since they’re rich in fiber, helping slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. Meanwhile, healthy fats include avocado, nuts, seeds, and nut and seed butter.

The Bottom Line: Eating breakfast can promote weight loss

Eat breakfast, but time it right – and make sure to include protein and no added sugar to help boost metabolism and lose weight naturally.

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