Eating a bigger first meal may have long-term health benefits – for some.

Making breakfast the main meal of the day could support better weight, appetite and health, according to research.

Yet despite the saying ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper’, many of us do the opposite.

Does this mean that we should all be ploughing our way through a roast dinner at 8am? Probably not.

Breakfast is simply when we break our fast, whatever time that may be.

If you don’t feel hungry when you wake up, then it is likely that your body isn’t yet primed to eat.

In his new book Spoon-Fed, Professor Tim Spector observes that the Hadza tribe in Tanzania do not have a singular word for the concept of breakfast, and that by the time they do eat they will have gone without food around 14 or 15 hours from when they last ate the day before.

When should we eat?

Research does indicate that our circadian rhythms – our ‘inner clocks’ – determine when it is best to eat.

These inner clocks are so strong that they even regulate when the body heals and repairs, and may also affect how efficiently we metabolise food at certain times of the day.

Eating a larger breakfast and smaller dinner, with dinner brought forward into late afternoon or early evening, has been credited with improving weight loss, stabilising blood sugars and even improving outcomes for heart attack patients.

It has also been associated with improved fertility in women with polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), as a result of the hormones insulin and testosterone being better controlled.

The body, it has been suggested, may simply process food more efficiently earlier in the day.

When to eat for weight loss

But despite these findings, it is unlikely that there is a rule to suit us all, particularly in the case of weight loss.

For example, one 2011 study on 93 women found that when they followed a moderate carb and fat diet of 1,400 calories, the women who ate a bigger breakfast lost more weight than the women who ate a bigger meal in the evening — even though the meals were identical.

After 12 weeks, the ‘big breakfast’ subjects lost an average of 17.8 lbs (about 8 kg) each and three inches (about 7.5 cm) off their waist, while the ‘big dinner’ subjects had lost an average of 7.3 lbs (about 3 kg) and 1.4 inches (about 3.5 cm).

The big breakfast group also had lower levels of ghrelin (the hunger hormone), insulin, blood sugar and triglyceride levels, and did not experience high spikes in blood sugar after eating.

Yet a preliminary study published in 2020 found that eating the majority of calories earlier in the day did not make any difference to weight loss.

After studying adults with diabetes or prediabetes over 12 weeks, researchers found that people who ate most of their food by 1pm did not lose more weight that those who ate over 12 hours with half of their daily calories after 5pm.

No significant difference was found in blood pressure either.

Breaking habits at breakfast

Additionally, if you are considering piling up your plate, whether at 8am or 11am, it is worth noting the studies that found benefits to eating a larger breakfast were highly controlled.

In the real world, eating a small (and early) evening meal is not always possible, especially when eating as a family.

It can also be hard to change habits; perhaps illustrated by a 2011 study that found, when people could eat what they wanted, eating a big breakfast made no difference to weight because they didn’t eat less later in the day.

Breakfast is your choice

Substantial breakfasts also do not suit everybody or every culture.

Arguably, the French nation has survived very well with le petit déjeuner; light breakfasts followed by a larger meal later in the day.

But if you do find yourself struggling with energy levels and being drawn to sugary snacks between meals, it may help to address what is going in to both your first and last meals of the day.

And be prepared to experiment, because what works for you may not work well for your friends and family.

In the words of Monty Python: “Yes, we are all individuals.”

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