May 19, 2011

Carbs for Breakfast? Big Mistake

Several years ago, I had one of those epiphanies that dramatically altered my approach to, and understanding of, nutrition and exercise science. In a nutshell, the lesson I learned was:

Assume everything we know is wrong

Ever since adopting this outlook, my understanding of nutrition and metabolism has grown by leaps and bounds.

Now before you get too excited, just because I approach every new (or existing) piece of knowledge in the exercise science domain as incorrect, that doesn’t mean I reject it. Quite the opposite actually. Lots of what we think we know does appear to be correct… but an alarming amount of what we pass around as “fact” doesn’t hold up at all to scientific scrutiny.

Case in point: breakfast.

One of the most significant turning points in my career came after I read an article entitled “Logic Does Not Apply Part II: Breakfast” by John Kiefer over on the Elite FTS website.

The crux of this piece was how when it comes to improving body composition, one of the best strategies seems to be skipping breakfast.

I think you probably need to read that last line again… I know I went over it 3 or 4 times myself when I first read it.

Obviously my initial reaction was one of “this guy is a total knob. Everyone knows that breakfast (outside of post-workout nutrition) is the most important meal of the day. In fact, if you don’t eat within 30 minutes of waking up cortisol levels will skyrocket and muscle tissue get broken down for fuel…” yada, yada, yada.

In fact, I was just about to close his “ridiculous” piece when I happened to notice that he’d referenced over 80 peer reviewed papers in putting together his argument.

Now I appreciate that not everyone loves properly referenced science, but when someone goes to those lengths to justify a blog post, I just had to dig deeper. And as I started to go through the articles he’d quoted, I was astounded with what I found.

Without question, there seems to be an utter lack of convincing data that shows breakfast eaters improve their body composition moreso than do people who skip breakfast (assuming they both eat the same diets). In fact, while breakfast eaters do appear to lose more weight than their non-breakfast eating companions, it turns out that more of this extra weight loss comes in the form of muscle mass.

Clearly, not something we want to have happen at all!

Every since that day, I’ve totally readjusted my thinking when it comes to the need for breakfast consumption for my clients. Which isn’t to say I forbid it… but I just am quick to point out grabbing a bite to eat immediately upon wakening isn’t necessarily someone’s best route to success for improving body composition.

In fact, yet another study was just published last month which supports the “avoid breakfast” idea. In the most recent edition of the journal Obesity, a group out of Isreal headed by Siegal Sofer showed that “Greater fat loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner“.

In this particular study, two groups of obese police officers (average body fat ~38%) were followed for 6-months. Both groups followed the same low-calorie diet providing 1300-1500 kcal; 20% protein, 30-35% fat and 45-50% carbohydrate.

The only difference between groups was that one group of cops got the majority of their daily carbohydrates with dinner, while the other group consumed their carbohydrates throughout the day.

A quick look at the breakfasts for these two group reveals significant differences:

Dinner carb group: coffee + 1/5 cup milk and 7 walnut halves
Breakfast carb group: coffee + 1/5 cup milk + 2 slices bread + cheese

Then each subsequent meal for the breakfast carb group contained either a fruit or a starch, whereas the dinner carb group got a big load of carbs (i.e. 4 slices bread or 2 cups rice) with dinner.

Now based on conventional thinking, we would assume that “back end” loading your day’s carbohydrates to be a bad idea (particularly since there wasn’t any exercise component to this study)… only that’s the opposite of what the found.

The “carbs for dinner” group actually:

  • lost more weight (11.6 kg vs 9.06 kg)
  • lowered insulin levels to a greater extent (-32% vs +22%)
  • increased HDL-C more (40.8% vs 26%)
  • improved TNF-a levels (-9.2% vs +16.2%)
  • increased adiponectin (43.5% vs 13.9%)


and showed strong trends towards improving:

  • greater body fat losses (6.98% vs 5.13%)
  • and superior protection of leptin levels (-20.6% vs -26.2%)


To top it all off, the “carbs at night” group showed vastly superior hunger control by the end of the study!

H SSc = Hunger Satiety Score. Higher is better.

Seeing awesome results like these strikes a chord with me, the hunger Nazi. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times – control someone’s hunger and you control their long-term success on a calorie restricted diet!

Now I’m more than happy to discuss/debate the idea of breakfast avoidance further in the comments section below, but keep in mind that this strategy works best if you are:

  • looking to lose body fat
  • no longer growing (i.e. not great for kids)
  • currently over-fat and have clear evidence of insulin resistance
  • don’t train intensely early in the morning


If you train for triathlons from 5-7 AM each morning, are a 14 year old boy hitting puberty or have been rail thin your entire life… then by all means, make sure you hammer down a large serving of carbs shortly after waking up. For everyone else, beginning the day with a bowl of cereal or a bagel will get the day started off on the wrong foot.

But that’s just my opinion… one that just happens to be backed by a lot of hard science ;-)

Till next time, train hard and eat clean!


Eva Weiß says:

Shouldn’t you eat when you get hungry? Since technically “breakfast” is just the first meal of the day, you’re going to end up eating breakfast eventually anyways. So how long should you wait until you eat something after waking up? 

graemethomasonline says:

Hey Eva – you are correct with “breakfast” being your first meal of the day by definition. There is no magic number with how long people must wait: some people find they do best eating immediately whereas other may do much better waiting 2-3 or even 8 hours before consuming anything!

The key is to identify what pattern works best for you and to stick with it.Most well designed diet studies are reaching a similar conclusion: total diet quality (not so much timing) is the key factor in producing long term success. However, playing around with meal timing for certain people may be a useful strategy in helping control their intake without having to resort to complicated calorie counting schemes and whatnot.This study suggested that by moving carbs to later in the day, these individuals tended to better regulate their hunger – which allowed them to lose more body weight.

Stephanie says:

Argh, Graeme. Just argh. I don’t doubt that there’s science behind this, but how come we don’t do our best when having carbs while there’s still a chance we’ll burn them off? What’s the science say about these men’s activity levels? I’m not training for a triathlon, but I go to the gym in the early afternoon. Wouldn’t lunchtime be my optimal carb time?

Anonymous says:

Although it intuitively makes sense to have carbs “when we have a chance to burn them off”, large primarily carbohydrate meals also tend to cause fairly wild hunger swings in people who are not genetically blessed to tolerate carbohydrates well.

So although eating a bagel for breakfast would seem to give you the greatest amount of time to burn it off, the rapid rise-fall in insulin levels that type of meal produces may drive increased hunger throughout the rest of the day.

When people get hungry, they tend to eat more. So over time, early carbs might be leading people to slightly greater daily consumption than if you leave your carbohydrates till later in the day.

That being said, a concentrated dose of physically activity does change our hormonal/metabolic milieu (for the better). Without question, for people going to train having carbs during/immediately after the workout tends to lead to the best body composition results.

So in your case, a small amount of carbohydrate before a workout, with a larger amount right after would likely be your best bet.

Stephanie says:

that makes sense. So, when I make my protein pancakes for breakfast and use 1/2 cup egg whites, 1/3 cup oatmeal, flax/psyllium, and either 1/3 cup mashed banana or pumpkin puree… is that high carb? Am I better of having eggs? I’m just trying to get a clear picture of what “small” vs “large” would be!


Anonymous says:


Small vs. large is more an issue of body size (actually lean body mass), physical activity levels and whether someone is in a growth phase or not.

Generally the most significant detrimental hormonal issues from large carbohydrate breakfasts arise when breakfast consists of nearly exclusively carbohydrates (think bowl of cereal/bagel + banana + glass of orange juice).

When you pair carbohydrates with a reasonable amount of protein and natural fibre/healthy fats, you don’t tend to see the same dysregulation of hunger. Ditto when you opt for healthier carbohydrate like oatmeal or fruit (instead of highly processed breakfast cereals or commercial bread products).

So unless you are trying to go for a dramatic low carb diet, the protein pancake breast you’ve described will work well for you.

Gpetraroia says:

Hi thanks for such a thorough post. I think that there are
many specific situations that may require the need to monitor each and every
piece of food you eat and when you eat it. But the best diet that works for me
is to eat wholesome food at every meal. I eat until I’m full and try not to go past that and I try not to eat past 7ish. Other than that I try to do some daily exercise and drink plenty of water, no soda. 

Marynkab says:

I am currently midway through the Insanity workout (max interval training) and I am limiting my carbs to 150g per day but I am definitely eating them in the morning.  I am also not seeing the composition results I would like (i.e. still looking “puffy” in the middle and thigh areas).  I workout on an empty stomach and have found this works best having eaten carbs at night.  My question is: Should I ditch the post workout carbs for better composition results and will more protein/fat assist in my recovery?  

Anonymous says:

Marynkab – without looking at your entire diet as a whole, it’s impossible for me to say exactly what is going on re: to fat loss. For some people, it might be amount of carbs that’s the problem, for others amount of protein or even just the total number of calories coming in.

Are you doing the bulk of the 150 g of carbs right after the workout right now?

KicknKnit says:

I used to eat carbs for breakfast every day.. or should I say a mid morning snack.   I gave that up last year.  Personally, I *do* have breakfast every day because if I don’t, I’m starving by 10AM, but my breakfast is now scrambled eggs with spinach and turkey bacon.  I wonder if there is a study done on trading carbs for protien for breakfast?

Anonymous says:

There have been a few studies that have looked into the substitution of more protein in place of carbohydrates for breakfast. In general, these studies show greater positive body composition changes.

Nutr Res. 2010 Feb;30(2):96-103.
Consuming eggs for breakfast influences plasma glucose and ghrelin, while reducing energy intake during the next 24 hours in adult men.
Ratliff J, Leite JO, de Ogburn R, Puglisi MJ, VanHeest J, Fernandez ML.

We hypothesized that consuming eggs for breakfast would significantly lower postprandial satiety and energy intake throughout the day. Using a crossover design, 21 men, 20 to 70 years old, consumed 2 isoenergetic test breakfasts, in a random order separated by 1 week. The macronutrient composition of the test breakfasts were as follows: (EGG, % CHO/fat/protein = 22:55:23) and (BAGEL, % CHO/fat/protein = 72:12:16). Fasting blood samples were drawn at baseline before the test breakfast and at 30, 60, 120, and 180 minutes after breakfast. After 180 minutes, subjects were given a buffet lunch and asked to eat until satisfied. Subjects filled out Visual Analog Scales (VAS) during each blood draw and recorded food intake the days before and after the test breakfasts. Plasma glucose, insulin, and appetite hormones were analyzed at each time point. Subjects consumed fewer kilocalories after the EGG breakfast compared with the BAGEL breakfast (P< .01). In addition, subjects consumed more kilocalories in the 24-hour period after the BAGEL compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .05). Based on VAS, subjects were hungrier and less satisfied 3 hours after the BAGEL breakfast compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .01). Participants had higher plasma glucose area under the curve (P < .05) as well as an increased ghrelin and insulin area under the curve with BAGEL (P < .05). These findings suggest that consumption of eggs for breakfast results in less variation of plasma glucose and insulin, a suppressed ghrelin response, and reduced energy intake.

So like you've discovered, if you are someone who likes/needs breakfast, it's a far better idea to make it higher in protein (and/or) fat, as opposed to having a breakfast containing a large amount of carbohydrate.