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A War on Breakfast? Seriously?

by Denis Faye | September 14, 2013

Holy Flip Flop, Batman! Now they’re telling us we don’t need to eat a morning meal! The New York Times Well blog reported earlier this week on a new report dispelling the importance of breakfast for weight loss.

New research shows that despite the conventional weight-loss wisdom, the idea that eating breakfast helps you lose weight stems largely from misconstrued studies. 

Only a handful of rigorous, carefully controlled trials have tested the claim, the new report, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found. And generally they conclude that missing breakfast has either little or no effect on weight gain, or that people who eat breakfast end up consuming more daily calories than those who skip it.

The first part of the post supports this thesis in sort of a Rube Goldberg fashion, which is interesting and all, but what I want to point out to all y’all happens about 2/3 the way down:

In the real world, when people form an opinion, they tend to seek out evidence that supports it and discard anything that contradicts it, a phenomenon academics refer to as confirmation bias. “Scientists are humans, and they’re susceptible to confirmation bias too,” Dr. Allison said.

Irony alert! Irony alert! In their haste to slam breakfast, the blogger threw the whole-grain-toast-and-eggs baby out with the bacon-and-donuts bathwater. In other words, this article reads as though someone really wanted to prove that people don’t need to eat in the morning to lose weight, so they elected to discard an important fact: dieting isn’t just about losing weight. It’s about healthifying your body–and keeping it healthified.

Don’t get me wrong. This is a report is worth noting. And frankly, for people like me who write nutrition guides and wellness blogs, it’s also a colossal pain in the ass because I’ve been advising people to eat breakfast in order to aid weight loss for years. Now I’m certainly going to adjust my way of thinking and revise my rationale–but my advice, in essence, stands. Breakfast is still important for your weight-loss diet for at least three other reasons (that The New York Times fails to mention).

1. Breakfast helps you keep blood sugar steady. You’re waking from a fasting state, so it’s much wiser to bring your glucose up a little instead of letting it continue to dip for a few more hours. There are, as always, exceptions to this, like if you’re an athlete experimenting with intermittent fasting or you’re just weird like my fellow nerd Steve Edwards, but generally speaking, if you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably spent most of your life running your pancreas through the wringer and, if you need to lose weight, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re one of the 35% of Americans with Metabolic Syndrome (or you’re well on your way). In other words, unless you start focusing on keeping your blood sugar steady, there’s a good chance you’ll wind up with diabetes, so knock that shit off.

2. Skipping breakfast increases your chance of heart disease. A Harvard study earlier this year showed that men who went without a morning munch increased their chance of having a heart attack or some other cardiovascular mishap by 27%. That’s huge! The 16-year study of 27,000 health professionals also showed they were 15% more likely to gain weight–but it was not mentioned in the NYT blog. (I’m certain confirmation bias was not involved.)

(Nerd Note: After I published this article, Nerd Herder Matt piped up on my Facebook page wondering “Isn’t that simply a function of healthy people normally eating breakfast? The ole causation vs correlation.” He has a good point, but I included it for a couple reasons. First, from what I read, it seems like a tight, well-designed study, so I’m taking a small leap of faith that Harvard accounted for this. Second, there’s this line: “Previous studies have found that feasting can result in high cholesterol and elevated blood pressure, compared with nibbling smaller meals.” I’m a firm believer that you process food better when you eat smaller amounts of it. Loading all your calories into other meals stresses your system and doesn’t allow you to absorb nutrients as well. One example of this is vitamin C, an important antioxidant nutrient for cardiovascular health. Get it on a slow drip and you use it. Take it all at once and you pee it out. Grab all your grub in one go and there are thousands of examples of this that will happen.)

3. Healthy eating isn’t about feast or famine. Under-eating isn’t hard for most people. That’s why yoyo dieting is a societal norm ’round these parts. “I need to lose weight? Okay, I’ll stop eating!” You drop down to sub-1200 calories, shed the fat, look good for your wedding or prom or whatever… and then what? I’ll tell ya what; You head back to the trough and end up bigger than when you started. Skipping breakfast to lose weight just enforces cycles like this. You’re not going to do it forever. No one ever does. It’s just a prolonged break between IHOP Sunday morning bingefests. The real trick is learning how to eat a balanced, healthy breakfast every, single day for the rest of your life.

Getting back to the NYT post, I really think they should have mentioned these things, at least in passing, as opposed to getting snotty about flawed scientists. The blog is, after all, called “Well,” which I assume refers to “wellness” as opposed to “deep pit into which you can fall and drown.”

On a final note, keep in mind that another study or report will probably come along tomorrow reenforcing the “myths” that this study appears to have “dispelled.” Case in point, a funky, little study from a few years back hooked breakfast eaters and non-breakfast eaters up to an MRI machine and showed them images of high-calorie food like pizza and cake, as well as low-calorie food like fish and veggies. The pleasure-centers in the non-breakfast eaters’ brains reacted considerably more to the high calorie food. Who knows where intel like that might lead?

So instead of making sweeping statements or etching your ideals in stone, my advice in these situations is to read the research and incorporate it into your strategy, provided it makes sense to you. But more importantly, be ready to evolve that strategy again at any moment, cuz ya never know what tomorrow’s science will bring.

(Mad props to Nerdette Rebecca Swanner for giving my the heads up on this report.)
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7 thoughts on “A War on Breakfast? Seriously?

  1. Seth Mauldin

    Good critique. There are always exceptions, but the majority of people I know who choose to skip breakfast generally don’t make very healthful choices throughout the day. Often times this is paired with the fact that they simply aren’t hungry yet from binging so late at night before bed.

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  2. Andrew

    I’d also be really interested in seeing a comparision between people who just don’t eat breakfast because they’re not hungry in the morning vs. people who impulsively and compulsively are “giving up” breakfast as a form of weight loss. I think there a lots of people who impulsively will try ANY sort of alleged shortcut to losing weight. That same impulsivity also makes them more prone to wolf down 4 slices of Papa John’s later that night, watching some NFL.

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  3. Denis Faye

    Good point, Andrew. I didn’t get too much into it, but I eluded to the not hungry people by mentioning Steve. Whenever he crashes here, he ends up sitting at the table, drinking espressos while watching me plow through the small orchid’s worth of produce that’s my morning meal. The latter group in your comment are who I’m referring to in my post.

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  4. Pingback: Getting wishy washy about breakfast! | Denis Faye

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