The Medicine Cabinet: Ask the Harvard Experts
By Robert Shmerling, M.D.
Q: I grew up with the mantra “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” But in recent years, I just have coffee as I rush out the door. Am I damaging my health by skipping breakfast?
A: I must confess: I do the same thing. But both of us can share some comfort based on findings of a new study. Skipping breakfast may not be as bad for you as commonly believed.
Researchers enrolled healthy kids, ages 8 to 10, in a study and repeatedly measured attention, impulsiveness, memory, verbal learning and speed of processing information. For each of these measures, the kids did no better (or worse) on the days they ate breakfast compared to the days they didn’t.
Of course, this study only assessed the short-term impact of breakfast on healthy school-age kids. The findings could have been quite different if it included “habitual breakfast skippers,” adults or people who don’t get adequate nutrition.
There have been fewer studies done on adults, and the results have been inconsistent and inconclusive. Some studies suggest that people who choose to skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight or obese than those who eat breakfast.
However, such studies have been criticized because of the real possibility that a factor other than breakfast habit might be responsible for the higher rates of obesity among breakfast skippers. For example, a recent study found that people who eat breakfast are more health conscious and exercise more regularly.
Adding to the controversy, another large study found that eating breakfast had no consistent effect on rates of obesity or being overweight. And yet another study found that adults who skipped breakfast actually consumed fewer calories by the end of the day.
My takeaway: It’s much more important to focus on what and how much we eat rather than focusing on when. And I’m feeling less guilty about my breakfast skipping habit.
(Robert H. Shmerling, M.D., is Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and Clinical Chief of Rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston. For additional consumer health information, please visit www.health.harvard.edu.)