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For generations, most of us have been told that "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day". Is this really true? And if it is, why?

Is breakfast overrated? For years we have heard that eating breakfast every day is essential to a healthy diet. Studies find that obese teens, obese women over 60, and depressed diabetics have one thing in common: They don't eat breakfast. Scientists in Japan seeking to solve the puzzling finding that Japanese people are eating less but weighing more place blame on not eating a healthy breakfast. The evidence that breakfast truly is the most important meal of the day, however, is meager, and two recent studies suggest that the importance of breakfast in a healthy lifestyle has been greatly exaggerated.

PEBO, The Power Of Eating Breakfast, Questioned

The habit of eating breakfast has some passionate defenders in the world of nutrition. So many authorities are so insistent that breakfast is the most important meal of the day that there is even a commonly used acronym, PEBO, for the power of eating breakfast. (In academic papers, this acronym refers to the "proposed effect of eating breakfast on obesity".) For many traditionalists, particularly in the US and UK, where "healthy breakfasts" are the norm, PEBO rules.

Some recent research, however, questions that assertion.

In one study, nutritionist Dr Emily Dhurandhar and her colleagues at institutions all over the United States at recruited 309 male and female volunteers, all of the overweight or obese, aged 20 to 65 to agree either to eat breakfast, or not eat breakfast, for 16 weeks. Some people who agreed to eat breakfast every day for the 16-week trial were already regular breakfast eaters, and some were not. Some people who agreed not to eat breakfast for the 16-week trial already regularly skipped breakfast, and some were already in the habit of not eating breakfast. This divided the study volunteers into four groups.

Surprisingly, all four groups lost weight during the four-month study, whether they ate breakfast or not, and whether they had previously eaten breakfast or not. Two groups lost slightly more weight, the breakfast skippers who started eating breakfast, and the breakfast eaters who started skipping breakfast. The added weight loss was, on average, just 0.1 kilograms (about 1/4 of a pound). Dr Dhurandhar told a source for Atlantic Monthly that previously she had been a member of the "breakfast police," but now breakfast may just be another meal and "I guess I won't nag my husband to eat breakfast any more".

Some Nutritionists Just Don't Like Eating Breakfast

Another, smaller study was conducted at the University of Bath in England, involving detailed laboratory studies and almost constant tracking of 33 volunteers who did, or did not, eat breakfast every day during the study. Lead researcher James Betts told reporters (again, from a story in The Atlantic) that:

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

"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. The crux of the breakfast divide is a phenomenon known among nutrition scientists as 'proposed effect of breakfast on obesity,' or the PEBO. It's the idea people who don't eat breakfast actually end up eating more and/or worse things over the course of the day because their nightly fast was not properly broken."

Continue reading after recommendations

  • Betts JA, Richardson JD, Chowdhury EA, Holman GD, Tsintzas K, Thompson D. The causal role of breakfast in energy balance and health: a randomized controlled trial in lean adults. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun 4. 100(2):539-547. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 24898233.
  • Dhurandhar EJ, Dawson J, Alcorn A, Larsen LH, Thomas EA, Cardel M, Bourland AC, Astrup A, St-Onge MP, Hill JO, Apovian CM, Shikany JM, Allison DB. The effectiveness of breakfast recommendations on weight loss: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr. 2014 Jun 4.100(2):507-513. [Epub ahead of print]PMID: 24898236.
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