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The Breakfast-Industrial Complex

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While I enjoy most standard breakfast foods to various degrees, the American fetish for breakfast is completely out of control. This is especially true for bacon, a vastly overrated meat. But really, the fetish is for the whole experience. There are multiple parts to it. One of course is the bacon thing. The second is idea of eating a big ol’greasy meal that supposedly provides us with joy. The third, and really the most ridiculous, is that not eating breakfast is somehow unhealthy and therefore those of us who don’t eat breakfast are hurting ourselves and should be lectured about it. Personally, I find eating a large meal in the hours after waking up repulsive. Perhaps a yogurt or an egg, maybe a bagel if I am feeling indulgent, but that’s it until at least noon if not 2. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m doing it right. It just means that I’ve figured out the combination of how much I can eat to maintain my weight and enjoying own aesthetic preferences. There are however days, when I’ve had a large meal for dinner, that I don’t take in a single calorie until 4 or so. The point is that you have to read your own body and act accordingly. At least now those of us who eschew breakfast have some hard evidence that the breakfast-industrial complex is behind our demonization.

It does not take much of an effort to find research that shows an association between skipping breakfast and poor health. A 2013 study published in the journal Circulation found that men who skipped breakfast had a significantly higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who ate breakfast. But, like almost all studies of breakfast, this is an association, not causation.

More than most other domains, this topic is one that suffers from publication bias. In a paper published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2013, researchers reviewed the literature on the effect of breakfast on obesity to look specifically at this issue. They first noted that nutrition researchers love to publish results showing a correlation between skipping breakfast and obesity. They love to do so again and again. At some point, there’s no reason to keep publishing on this.

However, they also found major flaws in the reporting of findings. People were consistently biased in interpreting their results in favor of a relationship between skipping breakfast and obesity. They improperly used causal language to describe their results. They misleadingly cited others’ results. And they also improperly used causal language in citing others’ results. People believe, and want you to believe, that skipping breakfast is bad.

Good reviews of all the observational research note the methodological flaws in this domain, as well as the problems of combining the results of publication-bias-influenced studies into a meta-analysis. The associations should be viewed with skepticism and confirmed with prospective trials.

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

And who is behind this?

Many of the studies are funded by the food industry, which has a clear bias. Kellogg funded a highly cited article that found that cereal for breakfast is associated with being thinner. The Quaker Oats Center of Excellence (part of PepsiCo) financed a trial that showed that eating oatmeal or frosted cornflakes reduces weight and cholesterol (if you eat it in a highly controlled setting each weekday for four weeks).

Fight the Man. And Tony the Tiger! Don’t give in to Big Breakfast!

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