Is Your Breakfast Hurting Your Weight?

Yoni Freedhoff

I don't really understand "breakfast food," at least not North American breakfast food. Here, it would seem our staples tend to be bowls of cereal, toast, maybe some pancakes or waffles and, occasionally, eggs, though many are still unnecessarily afraid of them.

Boiled down, it would seem that traditional breakfast foods are some variant of highly refined white flour, which in turn is quite regularly spiked with sugar. Sometimes that sugar's added by the food industry (Did you know that a traditional 2-cup bowl of Multi Grain Cheerios contains 3 teaspoons of added sugar?) and sometimes by us in the form of syrups, jams, jellies and even the hazelnut icing we try to convince ourselves is healthful.

[Read: 10 Things the Food Industry Doesn't Want You to Know.]

So, the question I've got for you is whether or not having bowlfuls of sugar or plates of highly refined white flour might in turn lead you to more difficult dietary struggles and, as a consequence, higher weights?

The medical literature isn't much help. Most studies evaluating breakfast's impact on fullness tend to only measure hunger levels and dietary intake at lunch. Yet, don't most of us also eat dinner?

In fact, my experiences with literally thousands of patients has found that if a person is going to struggle consequent to an inadequate breakfast (skipping it altogether, having too few calories or insufficient protein), it's going to be in the late afternoon, evening or nighttime. Therefore, studies that look at the impact of breakfast consumption on lunchtime hunger may well miss evening munchies.

[Read: How to Conquer Nighttime Food Struggles.]

The one study that tends to get trotted out the most often in support of breakfast cereals did not control for meal frequency and, more importantly, study subjects' other dietary patterns. And even this very positive, General Mills-funded, breakfast-cereal study found that those folks consuming highly refined grain cereals did not receive the same protection against weight gain as those consuming the whole-grain cereals. It's also important to note that the protection conferred wasn't weight loss, but lesser weight gains over 13 years.

My advice is simple and straightforward: If you struggle with hunger, portion control or cravings in the afternoon, evening or nighttime cravings - and if you're either a breakfast skipper or breakfast on highly refined grains - then why not treat yourself like a simple science fair experiment?

By means of a food diary or an online spreadsheet, track your dietary struggles on a daily basis. Rate what I refer to as your "day's degree of difficulty" on a scale of 1 to 10, where 10 is a day in which the cravings or hunger are overwhelming and 1 is a day that you're rock solid. For the first few days, don't change a thing to get a sense of where your days are. Then start changing it up.

Aim for breakfasts in which 20 to 25 percent of calories come from solid protein sources. Sure, you can do a bacon-and-eggs breakfast staple, but please don't forget the idea that specific "breakfast foods" is a totally artificial construct. There's nothing to stop you from having leftover dinners, sandwiches, salads, stews or anything else your heart might desire.

[Read: How to Serve Dinner for Breakfast.]

By tracking the impact of these non-traditional breakfasts on your day's degree of difficulty, you can determine whether or not what you eat for breakfast matters to your personal dietary demons and if abandoning the North American notion of sugar and refined grains for breakfast leaves you with better dietary control in the evenings. Here's betting that in turn translates to benefits to weight and/or health.

[Read: Worst Diet Advice: 'Only Eat When Hungry.']

Hungry for more? Write to with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

Yoni Freedhoff, MD, is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, where he's the founder and medical director of the Bariatric Medical Institute--dedicated to non-surgical weight management since 2004. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters, and you can follow him on Twitter. Dr. Freedhoff's latest book, The Diet Fix: Why Everything You've Been Taught About Dieting is Wrong and the 10-Day Plan to Fix It, will be published by Random House's Crown/Harmony in 2014.