406: Breakfast

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
406: Breakfast

Do you eat breakfast?

Show notes and links:

Full episode script

Studying breakfast is practically a cottage industry. It’s also one of the most-studied meals of the day, it appears, because there’s a huge amount of research out there.

That research, much like a lot of pop research out there, is not entirely the most scientifically rigorous. Some of it — in fact, a lot of it — is funded by companies that make their living, or at least part of it, from making breakfast foods.

It was in 1944 that the marketers behind Grape-Nuts started the campaign claiming that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. Priceonomics, writing about the origins of modern breakfast, wrote:

“Historians tend to agree that breakfast became a daily, first thing in the morning institution once workers moved to cities and became employees who worked set schedules. In Europe, this first began in the 1600s, and breakfast achieved near ubiquity during the Industrial Revolution. With people going off to a full day’s work, breakfast became a thing.”

A 2011-2012 National Center for Health Statistics survey found that about 15% of Americans skip breakfast on a regular basis, with nearly 30% of 20-29 year olds skipping breakfast on a regular basis.

It’s similar in Australia, where a Kraft-funded study found that a third of people skip breakfast at least three times a week. The report on that particular study specifically referenced that – quote – “though they acknowledge breakfast is the most important meal of the day…”

But is it really? A 2015 Consumer Reports article claims that of course it is, pointing to research that says eating breakfast may protect your heart, might lower your risk of type 2 diabetes, increases how much you exercise, It might give you a mental edge, and It just might keep your weight down.

BUT – to quote extensively from the Aaron Carroll’s article in the New York Times Upshot blog:

Few randomized controlled trials exist. Those that do, although methodologically weak like most nutrition studies, don’t support the necessity of breakfast.

Further confusing the field is a 2014 study (with more financial conflicts of interest than I thought possible) that found that getting breakfast skippers to eat breakfast, and getting breakfast eaters to skip breakfast, made no difference with respect to weight loss. But a 1992 trial that did the same thing found that both groups lost weight.

Many studies focus on children and argue that kids who eat breakfast are also thinner, but this research suffers from the same flaws that the research in adults does.

What about the argument that children who eat breakfast behave and perform better in school? Systematic reviews find that this is often the case. One of the reasons that breakfast seems to improve children’s learning and progress is that, unfortunately, too many don’t get enough to eat. Hunger affects almost one in seven households in America, or about 15 million children. It’s not hard to imagine that children who are hungry will do better if they are nourished. This isn’t the same, though, as testing whether children who are already well nourished and don’t want breakfast should be forced to eat it.

This script may vary from the actual episode transcript.