The Science Behind Skipping Breakfast: Is There Any?

Breakfast Reality Check

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The odd thing about our pop culture news cycles is how any given topic, or person, tends to run hot or cold — something with which I have personal experience. I can go weeks without a request to appear on television, for instance, but then get multiple requests for appearances all in the same week. Commenting about this to a producer at one of the major morning shows during just such a flurry of invitations, she gave me the very candid answer: “Well, you are the flavor of the week.”

I am not the popular flavor at the moment. This week, breakfast is the flavor. Stories about the science, and potential pseudo-science, of breakfast, or more specifically breakfast skipping, have populated both traditional and on-line media outlets.

Why the sudden newsworthiness of this homely staple of the daily routine? I have no idea. The coverage all cites a “recent” study, but that was published last November. True, that’s recent, but it doesn’t explain the clustered fascination with the topic this week, particularly since the matter has been rather fully fileted for public inspection before now. Let’s chalk it up to the “flavor of the week” phenomenon and move on.

The question in the mix is whether skipping breakfast is good or bad for weight control. The coverage all highlights a 2007 observational study suggesting that skipping breakfast was associated with weight gain; the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which encourage a breakfast of nutrient-dense foods; and the randomized trial from last November, which suggested that skipping breakfast facilitated weight loss, not gain.

Let’s start with the discrepancy between the observational study, and the more recent intervention trial; what accounts for it? No one can say for sure, just as we can’t say for sure which one is correct. True, the more recent study was a randomized intervention, and those typically generate stronger evidence than observational studies. But on the other hand, this intervention involved only 36 overweight participants, and lasted just four weeks. So, when a small, select group of overweight people was assigned to remove a meal they customarily eat from their daily routine for one month, they lost a bit of weight compared to the control groups.

Would this effect last over a longer period, more relevant to health outcomes? We don’t know. Would the effect be seen in a larger, more diverse group? We don’t know. Would the effect be seen in kids? We don’t know. The current media coverage tends to present this study as some kind of “antidote” to the weaknesses of prior, observational research, ignoring the study’s own important limitations.

As for that observational research, yes, it has important limitations too. In a study that compares weight change over time among people who skip, and don’t skip breakfast, why might weight go up more in the skippers? There are many potential explanations, but let’s invoke the obvious one: In a culture that has long emphasized the importance of NOT skipping breakfast, who will be prone to skip breakfast? People who are not striving to follow prevailing guidelines for good health. Who will avoid skipping breakfast? Perhaps those who are more health conscious generally. If, then, the study is telling us that more health conscious people are less likely to gain weight than less health conscious people, I trust we can agree that is a rather feeble revelation.

What, then, is the truth about breakfast? Only this: There is no basis in science for putting dogma on the menu.

The idea that eating breakfast is crucial, and skipping breakfast is harmful, is partly truism, and partly urban legend. The truism component is simply this: At some point, any fast needs to be broken, or we starve. So, yes, it is important to break our overnight fast at some point. There is no evidence, however, and never was any, that we must do it at some very specific time in some very prescriptive way.

What part is urban legend? Over years and decades, some studies have indicated that children who skipped breakfast not because they wanted to, but because their families were poor, were hungry, and distracted in school. This is hardly a surprise and not reliably generalizable to those who “skip” breakfast for other reasons. There is also some suggestion in the obesity literature that people who avoid eating despite being hungry in an attempt to control their weight wind up over-compensating at subsequent eating occasions. 

In a culture that consistently favors messages about diet that are dumbed down to the point of detrimental meaninglessness, this became the one-size-fits-all admonition we all know: skipping breakfast is bad.

The reality is: it depends. It depends on what “breakfast” means; and it depends on what “skipping” means.

For instance, I am not hungry first thing in the morning. In fact, I prefer a morning workout, and only get hungry some time later. It is not unusual for me to eat my “breakfast” as late as noon. Most studies that have looked at skipping breakfast have defined “skipping” as no meal prior to 11 a.m. I would thus show up in a data table as a skipper.

I don’t consider myself one, however. The food I eat for the first meal of the day — mixed berries and other fruit; whole grain cereals; nuts and seeds; and plain, non-fat Greek yogurt to hold it all together — is classically breakfast fare, not lunch. Besides, I am breaking my fast each day — just doing it when I feel like it. This is quite different from going hungry due to food insecurity at home, or starving myself and then binging later in a misguided weight control effort.

There really are two kinds of truth about diet and health. There are actual truths, predicated on the weight of evidence, buoyed by widespread consensus, and tested by time. Then, there are things repeated so often we assume they must be true, even though they never were.

You are not obligated to eat the minute your head lifts off your pillow. On the other hand, if you are hungry then — you are not precluded from doing so either. Those of us not on hunger strikes or some kind of cleanse will inevitably break our fast each day. My suggestion is you do so with wholesome foods in sensible combinations, and do so at a time that works for you. There are many reasonable options on the breakfast menu and no basis in the science we have for dogma to be among them.

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