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A well-publicized study recently reported that skipping breakfast can result in higher rates of heart disease. But the interpretation of the study was seriously flawed. Men may be better off skipping both breakfast and late-night snacks.

"Skipping Breakfast Tied to Heart Attack, Coronary Artery Disease Risks," headlines blazed on all the news services. The prestigious medical journal Circulation published a "landmark" study finding that male health professional who didn't eat breakfast were more likely to develop heart disease and more likely to die of it. But before you head out to the supermarket to stock up on heart-healthy bacon and eggs, it might help to know what this study did and did not determine.

Back in 1992, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health sent out a questionnaire to 26,902 American men employed in the health professions and then aged between 46 and 82. The men were asked about many aspects of their eating habits, including whether they ate breakfast, and whether they ate at night, for instance, whether they ate midnight snacks. Then for the next 16 years the Harvard School of Public Health accumulated data on the health outcomes of the men who completed the survey. During those 16 years, first-time cardiovascular events (including death) occurred in 1,572 of the men. 

When the data finally came out in 2013, researchers concluded that men who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of developing coronary artery or heart disease than men who ate breakfast nearly every day. The study also found, although this was not reported in the news media, that men who ate late at night had a 55% higher risk of developing heart disease than men who quit eating after dinner.

The explanations of the data by the Harvard research team, however, leave a great deal to be desired. From the newsroom of the medical journal one of the researchers explained:

  • Skipping breakfast seems to lead to weight gain (because of the calories not eaten), higher cholesterol (from the foods not consumed), and diabetes (caused by not eating sugar).
  • Proportionally, eating late at night increased the risk of heart disease twice as much as skipping breakfast, but this data could be ignored because more men in the study skipped breakfast than ate at night.
  • Risk of heart disease was also increased by obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, diabetes, failure to maintain healthy blood pressure, poor sleeping habits, stress, whether men were married, how much TV the men watched, and whether or not they lost their jobs, but since we already knew that, we can ignore these facts and just tell men to eat oatmeal, the food that men who don't eat breakfast don't eat for heart health.

Of course, the heart health researchers didn't consider the possibility that a deficiency of bacon and eggs might really be what was driving the increased risk of heart disease. On the surface, this study seems silly. On closer inspection, this study still seems silly. But that doesn't mean there is no relationship between eating breakfast, or skipping breakfast, and heart health.

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Cahill LE, Chiuve SE, Mekary RA, Jensen MK, Flint AJ, Hu FB, Rimm EB. Prospective Study of Breakfast Eating and Incident Coronary Heart Disease in a Cohort of Male US Health Professionals. Circulation. 2013 Jul 23. 128(4):337-43. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.113.001474. PMID: 23877060.
  • Chiuve SE, McCullough ML, Sacks FM, Rimm EB. Healthy lifestyle factors in the primary prevention of coronary heart disease among men: benefits among users and nonusers of lipid-lowering and antihypertensive medications. Circulation. 2006 Jul 11. 114(2):160-7. Epub 2006 Jul 3.
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