Forget What You Were Taught About Eating Breakfast

Forget What You Were Taught About Eating Breakfast Photo (cc) by adactio

New scientific research is debunking experts’ long-held advice that skipping breakfast makes you fat. Researchers are finding not only that skipping breakfast does not contribute to obesity, but some say it may even help with weight loss.

Overall, breakfast’s role as the most important meal of the day is getting a serious rethink. The science isn’t conclusive either way yet. The bigger question of breakfast’s importance to health isn’t easy to answer. One study, for example, refutes breakfast’s role in weight gain but finds that it is connected to cholesterol control.

For healthy people, though, some experts are saying breakfast is “just another meal,” as one scientist puts it, and it’s OK to skip it if you wish.

Exception: kids and adults with health problems

Take note: These studies only looked at the effects of breakfast on healthy adults, not on children or people with medical conditions, including hypoglycemia or diabetes.

Reuters reports on the results of 2015 research at the University of Tel Aviv into breakfast skipping among people with type 2 diabetes. Researchers studied 12 men and 10 women who were 57, on average, and overweight:

The researchers had expected that skipping breakfast wouldn’t be healthy. But they were surprised at the extent to which glucose metabolism suffered, simply because participants hadn’t eaten breakfast, said lead author Daniela Jakubowicz of Tel Aviv University.

The researchers said they couldn’t know if healthy people would have a similar response.

Weaknesses in the studies

Warnings about skipping breakfast seem to be based on common sense. Eating after awakening is supposed to be the way to get energy for the day and ward off hunger. “Skipping breakfast is often a big no-no if you are trying to lose or maintain weight because it leads to high-calorie cravings later,” wrote WebMD in 2009, in Skip Breakfast, Get Fat, an article that typifies this advice.

The breakfast prescription even has government support. The USDA’s Dietary Guidelines, the cornerstone of federal nutrition policy, say breakfast “has been associated with weight loss and weight loss maintenance, as well as improved nutrient intake.”

But this advice appears to be based in large part on observational studies, which cannot prove cause and effect, and not on controlled trials, which are the gold standard of scientific research. Because of this, it’s not clear that eating breakfast truly is the cause of the healthful effects it has been credited with, including lower body weight, blood pressure and cholesterol, Columbia University researchers write.

According to Washington Post reporter Peter Whoriskey:

S. Stanley Young, former director of bioinformatics at the National Institute of Statistical Sciences, has estimated that for observational studies in the medical field, “over 90 percent of the claims fail to replicate” — that is they cannot be replicated later by more exacting experiments.

The Post says that University of Alabama-Birmingham professor David Allison examined five randomized controlled trials on breakfast but could not find clear evidence of a connection between breakfast and obesity.

A sixth study, published this month in Obesity, also showed no differences in weight loss between those who ate a breakfast and those who skipped, though subjects who had a high-protein breakfast gained less body fat.

Of the hype around breakfast, The Post concludes:

The trouble with all these pronouncements is, aside from raising doubts about the credibility of other dietary advice from the government, that they might actually cause people to eat breakfast when they otherwise wouldn’t, potentially leading to weight gain.

Here’s what three of the newer studies on breakfast and health say:

Columbia University: Weight lost, cholesterol gained

Researchers at Columbia University in New York in 2014 split 36 overweight women and men into three groups and had them eat either oatmeal, corn flakes or no breakfast for a month.

“Skipping breakfast leads to weight loss,” the researchers conclude, in a summary in the Journal of Nutritional Science. Breakfast-skippers lost an average of 2.6 pounds versus a 0.3-pound average loss for those on cornflakes. In bad news for oatmeal lovers, the subjects who ate oats gained weight — more than a half pound, on average.

Unfortunately, there’s more, though: Among the breakfast-skippers, cholesterol levels rose compared with the other groups of subjects.

“The breakfast type that produces the greatest health benefits remains unclear,” the Columbia researchers conclude.

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