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Breakfast: Does eating a morning meal matter for health?
Some people may find nutrition information frustrating in part because of seemingly conflicting messages related to what to eat. One area of controversy is the idea that skipping breakfast has negative health consequences. - photo by Suzanne Lewis
Some people may find nutrition information frustrating in part because of seemingly conflicting messages in the media and other sources related to what to eat. One area of controversy is the idea that skipping breakfast has negative consequences for weight management and health indicators such as blood pressure or cholesterol levels. These potential negative impacts could be concerning in that results from a large population study suggest that skipping breakfast is common among American adults, with 18 percent self-reporting skipping the morning meal.

As is health and health care in general, nutrition is a dynamic area and new research often brings to light things that werent fully understood previously. There are also a variety of reasons why conclusive nutrition research studies are elusive. We wont go into the details here, however, one major reason is that its difficult and sometimes even unethical to require certain dietary protocols for research. Not many would sign up for a study that required eating only lettuce for six weeks for example!

There are some studies, though, where associations between eating behaviors and health outcomes can be identified even if a causal link cant be determined. For example, a 2013 study showed higher cardiovascular disease risk for breakfast-skippers and other studies have shown that skipping meals is associated with hypertension, insulin resistance and diabetes mellitus. Another source reports that compared to breakfast-eaters, breakfast-skippers tend to weigh more and have other unhealthy habits, such as consuming too many sugary drinks or high-calorie snacks.

On the other hand, there are other research studies including an obesity-related study from 2013, that suggest that skipping breakfast is not a concern. As of yet there are no identified causes between skipping the morning meal and the negative health consequences reported by studies mentioned previously. Overall, researchers are continuing to investigate the effects of skipping meals so there may be new findings to help explain these conflicting results.

For example, in another recent study, researchers evaluated obese individuals that were randomly assigned to one of two study groups: 1) individuals that were instructed to eat breakfast daily; and 2) those that were instructed to fast each morning drinking only plain water until noon. Both groups were advised to eat as they normally would after noon.

The results of this study showed there were no significant differences in weight change and most other health indicators over the six-week time period. This is a relatively short time period, however, so its possible the study duration wasnt long enough to capture any effects. It was interesting to note that the breakfast-eaters had higher levels of physical activity during the morning time period than the breakfast-skippers that were more sedentary during the same time period. In addition, the breakfast-skippers partially compensated for calories missed during the morning by eating more later in the day.

So what does all this mean? While its likely that research into the health benefits of eating breakfast (and avoiding skipping meals) will continue, what does seem clear is that its the overall health-related behaviors generally associated with people that typically eat breakfast that are a key. As is often the case, there is no magic bullet solution and considering personal needs including any special dietary needs for health conditions is also important. For example, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics evidence-based guidance for weight loss and weight maintenance recommends an individualized meal pattern that distributes calories at meals and snacks throughout the day, including breakfast.

The take-away message points to the importance of the overall lifestyle pattern for health and that its worth the effort to eat regular meals, including breakfast. Ultimately, this also means that individuals dont need to fret if they skip breakfast or another meal from time to time. Personalize the approach and timing of meals and snacks until finding what works.

Here are some tips to help make morning meals healthy and easy: