In the mad dash to get off to school on time, it can be easy for the kids to miss out on breakfast. But if they’re prone to skipping breakfast, they’re at risk of becoming overweight. The good news is that they can stave off the excess weight by taking plenty of exercise, research suggests (1).
Breakfast kick-starts the day and reduces obesity risk
Considered by some experts to be the most important meal of the day, breakfast fuels young people with the energy and nutrients they need for the day ahead. Making breakfast part of your family’s everyday morning routine, combined with an active lifestyle, is a great recipe for getting children and teenagers into healthy habits.
But this can be easier said than done, and growing numbers of young people, especially girls, are going without breakfast.
These children and adolescents who don’t eat breakfast may not be able to make up for the nutrients they’ve missed with the rest of the day’s meals (2). What’s more, they’re more likely to pile on the pounds if they regularly skip breakfast (3). Research has suggested that eating breakfast every day can cut the risk of childhood obesity by a third (4).
For the breakfast-skippers it’s all the more important to avoid a “couch potato lifestyle”. This has been supported by the latest research suggesting that, by stepping up their physical activity, these youngsters can boost their energy balance and help keep their weight in check.
Studying the link between breakfast, diet, exercise and weight
The researchers set out to confirm whether daily exercise can counter-balance the link between skipping breakfast and excess weight among young people (1).
They gathered data from 2 890 Spanish children aged 6-17 years using questionnaires asking about the youngsters’ breakfast habits and how much physical activity they took. Through body mass index (BMI) scores, the researchers assessed whether the children were overweight according to WHO criteria.
Results revealed that 43% of the boys and 35% of the girls were overweight. Girls had a greater tendency to skip breakfast (13%) than boys (9.2%).
Skipping breakfast was associated with higher odds of having excess weight in both boys and girls.
But daily moderate to vigorous physical activity moderated this association between skipping breakfast and excess weight, both in girls and in boys. The more minutes of exercise they did daily, the lower their risk of excess weight.
How might exercise protect against excess weight in breakfast-skippers?
The reasons for the study’s findings are likely to lie in the body’s way of controlling appetite and the feeling of being full.
In the hours after exercising, people don’t tend to eat more to compensate for the calories they’ve burned up during the activity (5). It could be that acute exercise makes us feel less hungry by suppressing levels of a hunger-promoting hormone, ghrelin, previous research has suggested.
Other research has found reduced insulin resistance when aerobic exercise is used to treat obesity in young people, so they’re better at processing blood sugar (6).
Whatever the mechanism, the researchers say their findings help underpin public health efforts to encourage children and teenagers to be physically active, as it’s crucial for maintaining a healthy weight especially among those in the habit of skipping breakfast.
‘… our results indicate that promotion of a healthy eating habit such as having breakfast should be accompanied by increases in daily MVPA [moderate-to-vigorous physical activity], as young participants who have breakfast and with higher daily MVPA seem to be more likely to have no excess weight’ – López-Gil JF, et al. 2022.
Why is skipping breakfast linked to excess weight?
It may be to fall into the trap of thinking you’d lose weight if you go without breakfast. But the chances are you’d be wrong and indeed you could actually gain weight. Scientists don’t yet fully understand why this is, but they suspect several possibilities:
- Breakfast skipping is linked to an increased appetite, which may lead to over-eating (3)
- As well as helping to control appetite, having breakfast may improve your insulin sensitivity, steadying blood glucose levels, when it comes to meals later in the day (3)
- Missing breakfast may lead to increased levels of a hunger-promoting hormone in the body (7)
- Research in children has suggested that skipping breakfast may be associated with a poor diet overall (2), which could lead to excess weight.
How much exercise is enough?
The World Health Organization recommends that children and adolescents have a daily average of 60 min of moderate-to-vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity in each week (8).
For adults, the WHO advises 150-300 minutes of moderate-intensity, or 75-150 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity, or equivalent combination, per week. While some physical activity is better than none, more is better for health.
The guidelines, updated in 2020, recommend regular muscle strengthening activities as well as aerobic exercise for all age groups.