There’s no meal more divisive than breakfast - some of us swear by it and insist that we cannot function without it, while others say they’ll throw up if they’re faced with anything other than coffee before 10am. (Weekends are a whole other story, everyone loves breakfast on the weekend.)
And just as all of us can’t agree on the virtues of breakfast, neither can researchers, it appears. It’s now gotten to the point where the conventional wisdom that "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day" might be edited right out of the US government’s official Dietary Guidelines this year, if the 2015 advisory committee takes the results of recent research into account.
Late last year, researchers from Columbia University in the US compared the effects on 36 overweight participants of eating a high-fibre breakfast (oats), a breakfast with minimal fibre (frosted corn flakes), and no breakfast at 8:30am each day over a four-week period. While we should expect evidence of weight loss in the people who had breakfast and weight gain in the people who skipped it, the team found that the only change in weight was experienced by the no-breakfast group. And they ended up losing it, not gaining it.
"In overweight individuals, skipping breakfast daily for four weeks leads to a reduction in body weight," the team concluded in the Journal of Nutritional Science. According to Korin Miller at Yahoo News, their hypothesis is that while skipping breakfast made the participants more likely to eat bigger meals later, their bodies were still unable to make up for the lost calories in that missing meal.
In other words, guilt people into accepting breakfast into their life with lines like "Skip Breakfast, Get Fat", and what they're really doing is accepting more calories into their life, potentially leading to weight gain, not loss.
So why then do the US federal guidelines state the opposite? "Eat a nutrient-dense breakfast," they advise. "Not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight, especially among children and adolescents. Consuming breakfast also has been associated with weight loss and weight-loss maintenance."
The above is scientifically backed information, of course, but what’s interesting is the difference between the Columbia study and the studies that support the government recommendations.
One of the most high-profile studies that support the "skip breakfast, get fat" notion was conducted in 2007, and looked at more than 20,000 American men aged between 46 and 81. It found that those who ate breakfast were less likely to gain weight over time than those who skipped it. "Our study suggests that the consumption of breakfast may modestly lower the risk of weight gain in middle-aged and older men," the researchers said in the journal Obesity.
But the problem here is that the methodology of the study brings into question the results, as Peter Whoriskey explains at The Washington Post:
"The advisory committee cited this and similar research, known as 'observational studies', in support of the notion that skipping breakfast might cause weight gain. In observational studies, subjects are merely observed, not assigned randomly to ‘treatment' and 'control' groups as in a traditional experiment."
In fact, Whoriskey even points to a statistic that for observational studies in the medical field, "over 90 percent of the claims fail to replicate".
That’s where the Columbia study gains a scientific advantage over the observational ones cited by the US Dietary Guidelines, because the team behind it exercised far greater control over what could be confounding factors. "Though small, [it] was a randomised, controlled trial, which is widely considered to be the gold standard of scientific research for its exacting results (researchers can control literally every aspect of the experiment)," says Miller at Yahoo News.
The Dietary Guidelines are updated every five years, which means the advisory committee will have to rethink their stance on breakfast. They might not change their stance at all, but it will be interesting to see, given that the guidelines are the basis of many school lunches and other federally subsidised programs in the US. We’ve already seen them soften their stance on eggs and salt, says Whoriskey, so it’s possible that 2015 could see the end of breakfast’s reign as the most important meal of the day:
"Its advisory committee called for dropping the longstanding warning about dietary cholesterol, which had long plagued the egg industry; prominent studies contradicted the government warnings about the dangers of salt; and the government’s longstanding condemnation of foods rich in saturated fats seems simplistic, according to critics, given the ever more intricate understanding of the nutrition in fatty foods."
Head to The Washington Post to get the full run-down of this issue, because it's a fascinating and surprisingly complex public health conundrum, regardless of how strongly you feel about the importance of breakfast in your own life. And if you're still unsure, while science continues to make its mind up, we think it's safe to say keep doing what you're doing if you're healthy. And if are an avid breakfast-skipper - no shame, just make sure you're hitting your dietary fibre requirements at some other point during the day.