When you eat breakfast and if you eat it at all may influence your weight loss goals. A recent study published in The Journal of Nutrition has found skipping breakfast before your workout might reduce your overall calorie intake throughout the day.

The small study involving 12 healthy, active men has found skipping your pre-exercise breakfast creates a negative daily energy balance. This could become part of your short-term weight loss strategy and help maintain a healthy weight in the long run.

Energy-deficit key to weight management  

Obesity is not just an issue threatening the health of Australians, but a global problem that has healthcare professionals concerned. Weight gain is typically a consequence of the overconsumption of energy over a period of time. Simply put, eating more energy than your body burns leads to an increase in body fat.  

Reducing calories and watching our macronutrient intakes such as carbs and unsaturated fats are common strategies for weight loss. In addition, regular exercise can help facilitate the loss of body fat and the maintenance of a healthy weight due to the increase in energy expenditure. 

However, previous studies have found people don’t tend to lose as much weight as they expect when starting a new exercise regime. This is often because of our energy balancing behaviours of eating more throughout the day or decreasing physical activity outside of the workout. 

Our brain fights against energy-deficit 

While we may make healthy lifestyle changes to lose weight, our brain naturally fights energy-deficit by increasing our hunger levels or encouraging us to move less. 

This is for our own survival as our brain simply doesn’t want us to starve by living in an energy-deficit state for too long. 

Over the years, research has found that many aspects of healthy eating and physical activity can influence the brain’s behaviour in compensating for the calories burned during exercise including the type and length of the workout. 

The role of breakfast in weight loss and weight gain

The role of breakfast in weight loss and weight management has also been considered. A typical Australian breakfast is carbohydrate-rich comprising of cereals, muesli, toast or fruit. 

The carbs in these foods are used as our primary energy source. When we no longer require energy, the carbs are stored in our body. These stores are smaller than those of body fat. It has been suggested that when our carbohydrate levels reduce, the brain rushes to replace them. 

If we exercise before we’ve eaten breakfast, we rely on our internal carb stores, and some fat stores, to provide us with the fuel we need to work out. In the process, we’re reducing these stores. 

It’s been speculated that we might end up overcompensating for this loss later in the day by eating more calories than we burned. This greatly undermines the health benefits of exercising and our efforts to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. 

Skipping breakfast before exercising may be a solution

In this recent study, researchers looked more closely into the timing of breakfast and its relation to exercise. 

The 12 active, healthy young men recruited for the study were asked to participate in three lab experiments:

  • Visit One – the participants ate a 430 calorie breakfast of oatmeal porridge and rested for several hours. 
  • Visit Two – the participants ate the same oatmeal porridge and rode an exercise bike at a moderate pace for 1 hour. 
  • Visit Three – the participants skipped breakfast, rode on the bike and avoided eating until lunch.

On each visit, the men remained in the lab through to lunch where they could eat as little or as much of the meal as desired. 

To ensure the participant’s daily calories were tracked, they were provided food to take home. They were only allowed to consume the food provided and were asked to return anything uneaten. They were also asked to abstain from drinking alcohol and caffeine for the period of the study and refrain from any strenuous physical activity for 24 hours prior to the trials. 

The men recorded any activity in a dairy and wore a physical activity monitor to track their energy expenditure.

The results

When the numbers were compared, there were some results that were predicted by others more surprising. 

  • Having eaten breakfast before relaxing, the men consumed about 490 calories more than they burned. 
  • On the day the men ate breakfast and worked out they maintained their energy balance throughout the day, burning and consuming nearly the exact number of calories. 
  • When the men skipped breakfast and exercised they consumed substantially more calories at lunch than they did on the previous visits. However, this hunger reduced throughout the day and they maintained an energy-deficit of almost 400 calories. 

Senior lecturer at the University of Bath, Dr. Gonzalez, who led the study says these findings may have implications for those including physical activity as part of their weight loss program.  

While your hunger may increase after exercising in the morning on an empty stomach, the researchers suggest this may actually lead to calorie deficits. If you continue this lifestyle change beyond one workout and one day, Javier Gonzalez says it would probably help you lose weight. 

Avoid focusing your efforts on the 1% gains 

This recent study is small and only short-term, involving only active, healthy young men. It also doesn’t explain why the men consumed fewer calories and why their brain didn’t respond to urgently replenish their carb stores. 

It’s also questionable whether the same results would be seen in those who are older, female, have high body fat or eat a diet of processed foods. 

It does, however, highlight the need to shift our efforts from focusing on the 1% gains and instead look at the 99%. 

If you’re looking to lose weight and achieve a healthy body weight, start by looking at your overall eating habits and lifestyle behaviours. Start by ditching the fad diets and quick fixes and focus on:

  • Consuming food in their whole form, limiting processed foods and junk foods;
  • Eating regularly to maintain healthy blood sugar levels;
  • Remaining hydrated by drinking 2L of water a day;
  • Exercising regularly;
  • Getting 8 hours of sleep a night;
  • Managing your stress levels;
  • Spending time outdoors to get enough vitamin D.

These are all foundational steps we need to take before you can achieve any substantial weight loss and reap the health benefits. Once you have these nailed, focusing habits that achieve the 1% gains, such as skipping breakfast before you exercise, will become more relevant.