One of the biggest myths of science is that research provides irrefutable fact. In truth, the only fact inherent to scientific inquiry is that if we research a topic long and hard enough, it will create more questions than answers and more controversy than agreement. Take, for example, the data on whether eating breakfast is healthy or harmful.
A recent clip on NPR presented compelling new evidence of the benefits of eating breakfast: it can lower the risk of heart disease. In a study of almost 27,000 men ages 45-82 who were followed for 16 years, men who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of heart disease compared with men who ate breakfast. It should also be noted that in the same study, late night snacking increased heart disease risk by 55%. Put a midnight lock on those kitchen cabinets! Anyway, the data on breakfast habits fall into line nicely with existing data showing that morning meal consumption lowers the risk of Type 2 diabetes and reduces overall mortality. All of this, of course, supports what we have generally come to accept over time: breakfast is pivotal to kicking off a healthy day. This belief even informs school breakfast programs, which aim to improve nutrient intake and consequent cognitive and physical health in school-age children. And, for many of us, most exciting of all is the evidence that routinely eating breakfast may ultimately prevent the weight gain that occurs over time in middle-aged individuals.
Not so fast, say the good researchers at Cornell University. Just the opposite is true, in fact! Skipping breakfast a few times a week may actually be an effective strategy to lose weight. For example, in their recent study, Levitsky and Pacanowski found that adults who skipped breakfast ate on average 400 fewer calories over the course of the day. Although these research subjects reported being hungrier without breakfast, they didn’t overcompensate for skipping breakfast by eating more food later in the day. These data are in agreement with the New England Journal of Medicine article entitled “Myths, Presumptions and Facts about Obesity,” in which authors presented two randomized controlled trials finding no strong evidence for a role of routine breakfast consumption in preventing obesity.
So…confused yet? This is the unsettling world of science. There are many ways and means to ask a research question, and our ability to answer health-related queries is really dependent on how we structure the study and analyze the data. With respect to breakfast, the probable conclusion is that regular, healthy breakfast patterns are associated with general metabolic, cardiovascular and cognitive health benefits. By contrast, the effect of breakfast consumption on the specifics of weight loss and gain is more variable, depending on other unique individual factors that include neural, hormonal and psychological influences. However, I caution that even this conclusion requires…more studies, more data, and, likely, more controversy.