Lifestyle

Why breakfast is an important part of healthy eating | Gustafson

A good breakfast sets the tone for sound eating habits throughout the day. - Courtesy photo
A good breakfast sets the tone for sound eating habits throughout the day.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

For the longest time, nutrition experts have emphasized the importance of eating breakfast. But while numerous studies have been conducted on the subject, it has never been scientifically proven that having a meal at the start of the day can make a significant difference for our nutritional health and wellbeing.

Now, two studies have questioned just that.

Most of the past research focused on the eating habits of study participants and observed certain advantages among those who ate breakfast by comparison to those who didn't.

For instance, several studies, including some sponsored by the government, found that school children who came to class hungry were less attentive and scored lower in academic tests than their well-fed peers, which shouldn't come as a surprise.

Still, as scientists like to say, research of this kind can only reveal correlative but not necessarily causal relationships. In other words, we don't really know whether having empty stomachs actually turned these kids into poor students or whether other factors played a role as well. Yet, one study suggested that feeding young children a healthy breakfast every day could increase their IQ.

Among adults, taking time for breakfast seems most beneficial for those who try to lose weight. A number of studies have found that breakfast eaters have an easier time to control their cravings than their breakfast-skipping counterparts, thereby keeping them from overeating later in the day.

But again, these are observational studies that don't really tell us whether having breakfast can actually contribute to weight loss, although many health experts like to think so.

By contrast, the latest studies first mentioned above tried to shed some light on the actual effects of breakfast on the body in terms of metabolic and cardiovascular health.

One study, conducted at the University of Alabama, concluded that neither eating nor foregoing breakfast had any discernable impact in terms of weight control.

The other, this one from the University of Bath in England, also found that breakfast habits didn't produce noticeable differences in metabolic or cardiovascular health either way, although it seemed that breakfast eaters fared better in controlling their blood sugar levels in the afternoons and evenings, and seemed overall more energetic and physically active.

As it is so often the case with nutrition science, these latest findings are likely to leave the public as confused as ever. There is, however, I think, another point to be made that researchers routinely either overlook or consider beyond the scope of their work.

As with all habits, the effects, good or bad, intended or not, manifest themselves only over time. Most studies, the most recent included, are limited in their number of participants and their duration. They also have a specific focus that prevents them from looking at the larger picture.

For example, if we want to know more about the importance of breakfast for overall nutritional health, shouldn't we also be interested in how it influences people's eating behavior in other ways?

We could ask whether individuals who eat breakfast are more health-conscious to begin with than others who don't. What food choices do they make? If they adhere to a nutritious, well-balanced diet in the morning, do they stick to a similar regimen all day? Or conversely, if they eat poorly later on, why should we expect them to do better at breakfast?

In other words, the distinguishing feature here is probably not whether people choose to have breakfast or not, but rather whether they follow an altogether healthy lifestyle, of which breakfast may or may not be a part.

If health is the overriding principle, as it should be, a health-conscious person will give his or her body what it needs and when it needs it. And yes, there is plenty of indication that a good start requires appropriate fueling – a.k.a. breakfast. But more importantly, it can set the tone for sound eating habits throughout the day.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D." (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook, Google+ and on Pinterest.

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