Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?
If you're a secret breakfast begrudger, this is for you.
Hello, my name is Melissa and I am a breakfast-skipper ... and it took me years to admit it! Of all the nutrition proclamations that are so firmly ingrained in our culture, “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” may be king. Listening to my stomach over the din of media advice has been a struggle.
As I got older I was finally able to embrace the idea that my brain knew my body better than anyone else, but I’ve often wondered where scientific research really stood on the issue. So it was with no small yip of “yay” a while back when I was interviewing Men’s Health magazine Editor Peter Moore and the topic came up. Moore and former Editor-in-Chief David Zinczenko co-authored the miraculous-sounding book, "The 8-Hour Diet: Watch the Pounds Disappear Without Watching What You Eat!," which, despite the excited title, is based on a lot of sound research and the personal testimony of some very solid editorial types. About breakfast Moore told me this:
“It’s so ingrained in our culture, but the fact is that the science behind the whole breakfast thing has always been kind of shaky, and when you start looking into it, you see as much science against the breakfast hypothesis as you see in favor of it, so maybe we’ve just been wrong all these years.”
And when I read that nutrition and food politics guru Marion Nestle was also a breakfast skipper, I was sold. "The idea that early eating is essential makes perfect sense for farm laborers and small children," she says on her site, Food Politics. "Whether it matters for normal, sedentary adults is a different question." Permission granted to wave my breakfast-skipping flag and wave it high.
Now Julia Belluz at Vox has taken on the issue, writing:
"Many of us grew up with parents fussing to make sure we had something in our bellies before we set off for school. Or we were brainwashed by TV commercial propaganda that promised eating cereal would make us lean and athletic."
She echoes Moore in saying that the science behind eating breakfast has been, “far, far less conclusive than either your mother or Tony the Tiger would have you believe.” And here comes the “aha” moment for breakfast skippers: Who is behind many of the studies screaming about the necessity of breakfast? Cereal makers. Oy.
As Marion Nestle writes: "Many – if not most – studies demonstrating that breakfast eaters are healthier and manage weight better than non-breakfast eaters were sponsored by Kellogg or other breakfast cereal companies whose businesses depend on people believing that breakfast means ready-to-eat cereal."
Belluz lays out the conflicts of interest nicely in showing which studies were funded by the Kellogg Company and Quaker Oats. In one, Quaker not only contributed to the study design but edited the manuscript. That doesn’t mean that the science was necessarily fudged, but it’s enough to make one wonder.
Meanwhile, not all studies were funded by those with vested interests – but independent studies may be less solid upon further investigation. Belluz notes of these observational studies: "It's important not to confuse correlation with causation … That's why careful reviews of these observational studies have been hesitant to proclaim any link between breakfast and certain health outcomes. 'Causality should not be assumed based on these findings,' one study explains." The Washington Post chimes in on the breakfast-promoting research in an article titled, The science of skipping breakfast: How government nutritionists may have gotten it wrong in which they say, “Every observational study could be challenged."
New studies have been set in motion to perform more rigidly controlled trials to get to the heart of the matter: The most comprehensive study looking at breakfast and weight gain concluded that eating breakfast had no effect on weight loss, while an earlier study found that breakfast-skippers actually lost weight.
“The evidence suggests the health halo around breakfast may be undeserved – but not that breakfast is pointless.”
The science about avoiding breakfast is still not entirely clear – Belluz explores it a bit further in the Vox piece (and you can click over there for all the dirt), but what does seem evident is that breakfast’s “most important meal” crown may not be warranted. That said, breakfast could be important.
“It's entirely possible that breakfast has amazing health effects, especially for some groups, like growing children and athletes,” says Belluz, “It's just that there's not a lot of good evidence behind those benefits.”
In the end it seems that when it comes to breakfast, one size doesn’t fit all. If you eat breakfast and it works for you, keep at it, as long as you are eating healthfully. (Katherine, our breakfast defender, writes about her great breakfast plan here). If you fall into my camp, embrace it
“The best science we have,” Belluz concludes, “suggests you're fine either way."