Making Sense of the Breakfast Debate


Maybe you’ve been reading about the widely reported study that calls into question the value of breakfast for weight loss, including this article in the New York Times on the “myths” surrounding breakfast and weight.  This article in iVillage takes it even further — which I found particularly troubling:  “Put down the Wheaties! Breakfast doesn’t champion anything but a bigger waistline. That most important meal of the day is really just a heap of extra calories.”   Really?  That goes too far.

So many of the stories seem to suggest that we’ve all been hoodwinked into eating breakfast and it’s a myth that the morning meal makes any difference in our weight – even implying that we might be better off skipping breakfast if we want to lose weight.  The iVillage article makes it seem like breakfast is the culprit.

Hogwash.  That was the topic of my latest column for WebMD’s Real Life Nutrition blog.

This all stems from a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that was conducted by a research team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.  They concluded that our belief in the “proposed effect of breakfast on obesity” goes beyond what scientific evidence supports.  We presume it to be true.  They even suggest that the studies indicating a weight loss benefit of eating breakfast were simply misconstrued – influenced by the bias of the researchers who conducted those studies.

The new study picks apart the scientific literature on breakfast and concludes that missing breakfast has either little or no effect on weight gain, or people who eat breakfast end up consuming more calories at the end of the day than those who skip it.  The Alabama researchers are even critical of the findings from the National Weight Control Registry that showed regularly eating breakfast was one of the habits of people who have lost a significant amount of weight and kept it off for at least a year.  They claim that this research is the basis of widespread misinformation.  Wow, that was a bold conclusion — I think we have a lot to learn from real life people who have found a way to manage their weight.  Real life scenarios can sometimes be more insightful than statistical spreadsheets. Maybe it’s not cause and effect, but it works for them.

With this new study, the researchers from Alabama set out to disprove the notion that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”   So they conducted a meta-analysis – or an investigation that looked at a collection of studies – to demonstrate that this is simply a belief, not a scientific truth.  I get that, but what’s the point?

Do we really need to have people question if they should eat breakfast?  Do we really want them to skip breakfast so they can “save” their calories for later in the day?  That’s not a good strategy — it will likely backfire.  And besides, bias or not, people who are successful at maintaining their weight do tend to eat breakfast.  It’s truly a healthy habit that we should encourage.

Perhaps the scientific evidence on breakfast and weight is mixed.  I don’t care.  There’s enough proof to me that breakfast can make a difference.  And there are many other reasons to eat a healthy morning meal besides the number on the scale.  Studies have consistently shown that breakfast impacts cognitive function – benefiting memory and performance, both at work and in the classroom.  It’s also mighty tough to make up for the nutrients missed at breakfast if you skip it.  There’s an unquestionable amount of research that backs this up.

Yes, maybe some researchers have a personal bias that spills over into studies.  That’s probably worth exploring.  But why pick on breakfast to try and prove this point?  I still believe breakfast is a smart weight loss strategy.  It’s a healthy habit that helps set the tone for the day.  It gets you off on the right foot, which can impact the rest of your day.

So I say go ahead and keep eating breakfast.  Just make it a good one – a little protein to keep you full, whole grains, fruit and low-fat dairy.  Breakfast is one of the 12 healthy habits in my book, and you’ll find lots of ways to start off your day (including some on-the-go breakfast ideas if you’re prone to skip).

Maybe breakfast is not THE  most important meal of the day, but it’s still important.

image courtesy of jonolist on flickr


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