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May 24, 2016

NYT debunks the 'mystical' powers of breakfast

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on March 9, 2020.

When it comes to the health benefits of eating breakfast, don't believe the hype, Aaron Carroll reports for New York Times' "The Upshot."

Understand the wellness spectrum—and promote healthy habits at work

It's a common belief that eating breakfast helps you lose weight and is good for your health. There's just one problem, Carroll says—we don't know if it's true. "As with many other nutritional pieces of advice, our belief in the power of breakfast is based on misinterpreted research and biased studies," he writes.

Several studies have found that breakfast has positive benefits, such as a 2013 paper published in Circulation that found skipping breakfast increased the risk of heart disease in men. But that study, and others like it, are weaker than they appear because they document correlation rather than causation, Carroll argues.

Evaluating the evidence

A 2013 paper in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition examined studies that looked at the relationship between breakfast and obesity and found that methodological weakness—and loose language that incorrectly suggested causality—were rampant.

The study also documented widespread publication bias. Researchers tended to publish the same (positive) findings about the health benefits of breakfast over and over again. In turn, researchers publishing similar articles cited each other's flawed studies, resulting in an echo chamber of misleading evidence, Carroll explains.

Separately, Carroll notes that while several studies have documented that giving school children breakfast helps them focus and do better in school, he argues that it may not be the morning meal itself that is causing the improvement.

Is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

Carroll observes that many children don't get enough to eat at home and giving them breakfast can prevent them from being malnourished—meaning that the benefit of getting enough to eat generally, not eating breakfast specifically, might explain the research findings.

In addition, the food industry has a significant stake in promoting the health benefits of breakfast and has funded several studies that found breakfast can help with weight loss and promote other health benefits, Carroll notes.

"The bottom line is that the evidence for the importance of breakfast is something of a mess," Carroll concludes. "If you're hungry, eat it. But don't feel bad if you'd rather skip it … Breakfast has no mystical powers" (Carroll, "The Upshot," New York Times, 5/23). 

Understand the wellness spectrum—and promote healthy habits at work

understanding the employee wellness spectrum

Programs aimed at promoting healthy habits among employees are likely to lead to improved employee engagement and productivity—but they're unlikely to reduce the total cost of care. To do that, you'll need to take a population health approach.

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