Many believe that having breakfast has many benefits: it kick-starts metabolism which is ideal for weight loss, provides food for the brain to function, thus boosting alertness levels and productivity, and reduces the risk of conditions like hypertension, diabetes and heart disease.

Despite the long list of benefits, Terence Kealey, a British clinical biochemistry professor has a different take on this matter.

Diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, Kealey monitored his blood glucose levels and found that that they were dangerously high in the mornings and further increased after breakfast. This led him to reconsider whether breakfast really is as important as people claim it to be.

Breakfast may do the opposite of what we think it does

In his new book which discusses the topic, Kealey argues that it is simply not true. He states that consuming breakfast instead exacerbates the metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors such as high blood sugar and excess abdominal fat, which in turn increases the risk of conditions like heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

He claims that by eating breakfast, people are only increasing the amount of calories consumed and encouraging hunger pangs later in the day. This is made worse by the fact that breakfast foods like toast and cereal tend to be loaded with excess carbohydrates and sugar.

His book arrives alongside a recent UK study which revealed that common breakfast foods, like fruit juices and spreads, contain far too much sugar, such that school children are consuming half the recommended sugar allowance at breakfast alone.

‘White hat’ bias a major culprit

Kealey remarks on the prevalence of misleading studies and biased research papers on the topic. "I read paper after paper after paper in which I was astonished by the degree to which the scientists were obviously fooling themselves. The scientists had clearly approached this problem with a preconception and whatever data they found, they moulded their conclusions."

"People engage in what scientists call 'paradigm protection'; they intuitively behave in confirmation bias and try to find evidence to support because it's so hard to acknowledge error," he adds.

In a 2013 study, researchers undertook an extensive review of past studies examining the premise that breakfast could prevent weight gain. They concluded that the scientific evidence available did not justify the extent of this belief.

The researchers noted that the studies often used misleading language to indicate that breakfast influenced weight, despite a lack of evidence. The studies had merely correlated the participants’ physical appearance to the food they said they ate.

“It goes back to the idea that correlation doesn’t equal causation,” said Andrew Brown, a nutrition scientist at the University of Alabama and one of the researchers involved in the analysis. It could simply be that heavier people were the ones who would rather skip breakfast in their efforts to lose weight.

Brown also observed that scientists tended to attribute inconclusive findings in favour of breakfast in a phenomenon known as “white hat” bias, where people cherry-pick the results of publications to support their inherent beliefs.

What about the role of food companies with vested interests?

Nutrition science is often inconclusive, and many are funded by food companies who hype up the benefits of the breakfast products they sell. It can be challenging to separate such claims from true dietary advice, especially since disclosures about who funded what research were not required in the past.

“Only the ideas they see as favourable get money,” said David Schlundt, an associate professor at Vanderbilt, of industry-funded research. Companies also tend to only select findings that are able to present their products in a favourable light.

Breakfast cereal makers Kellogg funded a study in 2011 which had found no link between cereal consumption in Mexican-American children and appropriate weight. The paper did not show any link between cereal consumption and healthier weight which at first prompted O’Neil and her coauthor to withdraw the paper from submission but was opposed by Kellogg.

Eventually, the paper was published two years later, highlighting the link between cereal and higher nutrient intake, and that nutritious breakfasts, including cereal, were beneficial.

This illustrates how findings are not always meaningful, and how easily they can be twisted to portray a picture more advantageous to the agendas of corporations. Sugar companies have also done something similar in funding studies that were responsible for the belief that fat, not sugar, was to be avoided.

But amidst all this controversy, should breakfast be consumed?

Kealey is convinced that skipping breakfast is the best solution. "We're asking too much of the body to expect to eat three delicious meals a day," he says.

He explains that by sticking to two meals a day, it allows the body to recover itself from the day before and adds, “That morning fast is really very important for the body to recover." MIMS

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