In the mainstream nutrition world there's one thing you can always count on: If you're told a food -- or nutrition practice -- is good for you today, you'll be told it's bad for you tomorrow.
The one exception: breakfast.
Even as experts flip flop on the recommended breakfast food and drink -- is it eggs or cereal? coffee or tea? -- they remain steadfast in one belief.
That breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
According to the experts: Eat breakfast and you'll be more energetic, smarter, more productive, and leaner. Skip it and you're a disease statistic waiting to happen.
Of course, with the weight of the scientific evidence, no one in his or her right mind would think to challenge the idea that eating breakfast is the healthiest thing you can do.
But wait a second...
Where is all this evidence?
In a recent paper, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers approached the breakfast question with a healthy dose of skepticism.
They analyzed dozens of studies looking at one particularly interesting relationship: breakfast and body weight. And asked the question: Is the evidence really that strong?
A little background first.
Many nutrition experts claim that breakfast is so important because it helps with weight management. (They also think that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain and obesity.)
Interestingly, it's this supposed causal relationship between breakfast and body weight that forms a cornerstone belief of the "most important meal of the day" movement.
Unfortunately for this movement, the link is weak. And it's correlational, not causal.
In essence, we know there's some relationship between breakfast and body weight. But we don't know what the relationship is. Or whether it's important.
With that said, back to the study.
In analyzing dozens of individual papers -- called a meta-analysis -- the researchers concluded that the link between breakfast and body weight is "only presumed true."
In other words, the idea that "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" is more of a "shared belief" than a research proven conclusion.
Here's how it works.
Since we've heard it so often -- heck, some of us have even said it -- the phrase "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" becomes part of our cultural lexicon.
Then, because we believe in it culturally, any information that runs counter it is assumed to be wrong. Even before we evaluate the evidence.
Interestingly, according to this published research, it's not just regular people who commit this error. Nutrition experts and researchers do the same thing.
In fact, when they really dug into the literature, they found four extremely serious problems:
1) researchers were offering biased interpretation of their own results,
2) researchers were improperly using causal language to describe their results,
3) researchers were misleadingly citing others' results, and
4) researchers were improperly using causal language when citing others' work.
All this to say that researchers aren't immune to bias.
In fact, when it comes to the relationship between breakfast and body weight, many researchers are so committed to the shared belief that eating breakfast is the right thing to do that they -- often unintentionally -- misrepresent their results and the work of others.
How important is breakfast really?
Of course, we can't throw the baby out with the bathwater here.
Just because some research is biased -- or incomplete -- doesn't mean that it's meaningless. So let's start with some of the proposed benefits of eating breakfast.
In the literature, eating breakfast is consistently associated with:
· decreased overall appetite
· decreased overall food consumption
· decreased body weight
· improved academic performance
· improved blood sugar control
If we stopped there, of course we'd presume that breakfast skipping is a dumb move.
However, we can't stop there. Because the majority of this evidence is observational. It suggests there's a relationship -- a correlation -- without proving cause.
For example: It could be that people who are "healthy" for other reasons -- like the fact that they work out more or benefit from a higher socioeconomic status -- also eat breakfast. While those who are "unhealthy" -- because they don't exercise or live below the poverty line -- skip it.
In this case, breakfast just happens to co-exist with health rather than cause it.
So here's the bottom line: When examining research that actually controls for all the variables and looks at cause and effect, the results are pretty mixed.
In other words, breakfast looks to be beneficial for some of us. But not for others.
The strongest of this evidence suggests that breakfast is most important for malnourished or impoverished children. But, for other populations, it seems to be just another meal. No better. No worse. Completely negotiable.
Are there benefits to skipping breakfast?
There's also the new data showing that skipping breakfast might not be so bad after all.
Folks with Type 2 diabeties, for example, did better in this study when they skipped breakfast altogether and ate a larger lunch.
Other folks who were told to skip breakfast ended up eating less overall compared to breakfast eaters.
And skipping breakfast is also just as effective as eating breakfast for weight loss.
Of course, we can play dueling studies all day long. I can show a study suggesting one thing. You can find a study suggesting the opposite. And, in the end, when it comes to the value of breakfast, we'd be at a scientific stalemate.
Which is why I often look at what's happening outside of the literature.
The breakfast skipping movement.
In the popular media and across the web, an interesting breakfast counter-culture is cropping up. A virtual army of people intentionally skipping breakfast are sharing a host of health benefits they've experienced since getting rid of their morning meal.
This movement is part of a larger one known as intermittent fasting; the most popular form involves skipping breakfast each day, extending the overnight fast from dinner the night before until lunch the next day.
There are other types of fasting that involve even longer fasts each day, extending the overnight fast from dinner the night before to dinner the next day. And other types that even suggest skipping meals for one or two entire days each week.
And the reported health effects of an intelligently designed intermittent fasting program read like a laundry list of live longer, live better benefits including:
blood lipids, blood pressure, markers of inflammation, oxidative stress, and cancer
Cell turnover and repair, fat burning, growth hormone release, and metabolic rate
And, yes, many experts believe that skipping breakfast is part of the magic here.
(To read more about intermittent fasting, including a review of the most popular types and a summary of my own personal experiments, click here.)
So, will skipping breakfast be better for me?
Maybe yes. Maybe no.
Preliminary evidence suggests that skipping breakfast can:
· increase fat breakdown
· increase the release of growth hormone (which has anti-aging and fat loss benefits)
· improve blood glucose control
· improve cardiovascular function
· decrease food intake
However, the truth is, most of this research has been done in animals, with only a few conclusive human studies. So, while intriguing, there's certainly no guarantee that these changes in our physiology will actually lead to long-term benefits.
In fact, many times, immediate changes are corrected for, and balanced out, later. That's why acute changes don't always lead to chronic ones.
Also, anecdotally, skipping breakfast seems to be a mixed bag.
Many report great results from skipping breakfast and having fewer, but larger, meals each day. Others report that it provides no benefit. Yet others report some really negative effects, such as decreased energy, lack of focus, and disrupted sleep.
Clearly eating breakfast -- or skipping it -- is not a panacea. Of course, no nutritional solution ever is.
What to do now.
The take-home message here is pretty simple: Breakfast is optional.
(Which means it's not "the most important meal of the day.")
- If you love breakfast, are doing well with eating it, and feel like it's helping you accomplish your health and/or fitness goals: Keep at it!
Of course, I'd also be remiss if I didn't remind you that what and how you eat matters too. But that's another topic for another day.
John Berardi, Ph.D. is a founder of Precision Nutrition, the world's largest online nutrition coaching company. He also sits on the health and performance advisory boards of Nike, Titleist, and Equinox.
Dr. Berardi was recently selected as one of the 20 smartest coaches in the world by livestrong.com, the internet's most popular fitness site.
In the last 5 years, Dr. Berardi and his team have personally helped over 20,000 people improve their eating, lose weight, and boost their health through their renowned Precision Nutrition Coaching program.
For more by John Berardi, PhD., click here.
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