In my first year of medical school, I was taught that skipping breakfast is a bad idea for many reasons—notably that it would cause people to overeat later in the day and increase the likelihood that they'd become obese. This belief has become the accepted wisdom in the medical literature, and is often mentioned without citing a scientific source.
But is it true that people who don’t eat breakfast tend to gain weight? And if they do put on weight, is missing breakfast the cause? I’m interested in this question from a personal and professional perspective; for my entire adult life I have skipped breakfast (save my double espresso without milk or sugar) and have never had a weight problem. Am I simply an outlier?
After few clinical trials, but hundreds of observational studies—some sponsored by food manufacturers—there may be an answer of sorts. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has just published a carefully performed analysis of the medical literature on breakfast-skippers and obesity. The authors, from the University of Alabama, were specifically interested in the quality of proof and the degree of bias in the literature about this topic.
The essence of their findings: the belief in the effect of going without breakfast skipping on obesity is stronger than any scientific evidence. For example, the Mayo Clinic website says, “...Skipping breakfast actually increases your risk of obesity.”
The authors also found instances where the scientific evidence was distorted by the bias of the researchers. In an extreme example, one research paper that contained no mention of breakfast and obesity in its results still concluded that regularly avoiding breakfast was a cause of obesity.
I think the new analysisdoes much more than challenge a popular but unverified notion—one repeated by generations of doctors, dietitians and nurses. It also raises the question of how much of our “accepted wisdom” in any area of medical thought and practice is really true.
In the last few decades medicine has moved strongly (and correctly) toward the idea of evidence-based medicine. Still, humans produce such evidence, and all humans have biases and blind spots.
I suspect that eating breakfast may help some people control their total daily caloric intake. And many people feel better and more alert after a morning meal. Do what works best for you—in this case science doesn’t have the answer . . . yet.