Thursday, September 04, 2014

Is Breakfast for Champs or Chumps?

Gotta love a spate of new breakfast studies in the media just in time for the back-to-school morning rush. Just what busy, school-supply-fetching moms and dads want to know! Should they push food on their kids or send them off to school without a worry or a lame breakfast bar?

Headlines suggest it’s no big deal either way:

Is Breakfast Overated? New York Times

Study Finds Nothing Special about Breakfast NPR

Breakfast Downgraded From "Most Important Meal of the Day" to "Meal": Today the pendulum of science defends breakfast skippers  The Atlantic

So good, it appears from the headlines I can relax tomorrow morning. Yet questions remain:

Does this mean I can stop coaxing my daughter to eat each morning? 
Can I stop debating with my son whether Fruit Loops are as healthy as Honey Nut Cheerios?
Is one cheese stick better than a serving bowl of Cheerios?
Is a chocolate-dipped granola bar better than no breakfast?
Do all the other kids at school really eat muffins, donuts and pop-tarts for breakfast everyday?

I don’t know.

These studies didn’t address these pressing daily questions but it’s not obvious from many of the headlines, including the above ones I pulled from some of the most respected news organizations. Here’s what these lofty journalistic venues failed to specify in their teasers – the recent research only looked at the effects of eating or skipping breakfast on weight loss. The larger of these studies, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found skipping breakfast neither helped nor hindered moderately overweight folks trying to trim down. Yes this was an actual experiment, hurrah for that so participants were randomly assigned to either eat or skip breakie. Further evidence that people will do anything or at least agree hypothetically to do anything a professional sort may recommend. Another much smaller UK study mentioned in some of the articles found similar results in leaner folk.

To be fair, some media did mention weight loss in their headlines:

Snap, Crackle, And Pop Goes the Conventional Wisdom about Breakfast and Weight Loss Forbes

Breakfast Key To Weight Control? Maybe Not WebMD

Skipping breakfast does not impact weight loss: study New York Daily News

The Atlantic, which blew the headline, featured the most nuanced article of the lot and the only one to bother bringing up kids:

If you ever visit the Internet's most-read site for health information, WebMD, you'll see an article presumptuously titled "Why Breakfast Is the Most Important Meal of the Day," which mainly focuses on kids and the lore that they do better academically if they have eaten breakfast, but that's overblown and really not a clear conclusion. As [David] Katz [director of Yale University's Griffin Prevention Research Center] put it, "We have little information about adolescents, little information about the benefits of breakfast in well-nourished kids, and little information about how variation in the composition of breakfast figures into the mix."

A quick lit search shows quite a few recent studies, a number just in the past few years on the topic of breakfast and children including adolescents. So I wonder if there has been more solid progress on this front than David Katz seems to have acknowledged. I’ll forgive James Hamblin, author of the The Atlantic piece for not pursuing the question because he delivered this gem:

“One thing I've learned as a health writer is that a wealth of academic research is the product of personal vendettas, some healthier than others.”

Personal health vendettas? A researcher would never!! Not James Betts, senior lecturer and a co-author of one of the breakfast studies who told the New York Times:

“I almost never have breakfast,” Dr. Betts said. “That was part of my motivation for conducting this research, as everybody was always telling me off and saying I should know better.”

Betts doesn’t have any plans to start eating it either. By the way, I had already copied and pasted that beauty before reading Hamblin’s article. Thank goodness I’m not the only person highlighting researcher quotes.

So tomorrow I will try to persuade my children to eat a healthy breakfast. I will continue efforts to persuade them plain yogurt and whole grain flakes are yummy. Oh yes, there’s new evidence people can be “trained” to like nutritious food and dislike bad food and it comes from a totally not biased researcher, Susan B. Roberts, Ph.D., director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA who reported "this conditioning happens over time in response to eating -- repeatedly! -- what is out there in the toxic food environment."

Good luck in your highly toxic food environment, I mean kitchen.

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