Say you’re one of those people who is just not hungry in the morning. It’s all you can do to drink some water or maybe coffee. You have probably been made to feel guilty all these years, by everyone from your mother to the American Dietetic Association, that your eating habits just aren’t up to snuff.
It’s just not that simple. Your mom may have been right. Or she may have been just another brainwashed American. There are abundant admonitions for children to eat breakfast. The American Dietetic Association, among many others, implores the public to eat breakfast, but on closer inspection, all of its materials are directed at children. (The same holds true for dozens of other purveyors of public nutrition information, by the way.)
ADA research demonstrated that children who ate breakfast scored higher on tests. Later ADA research narrowed it down: Children score higher on tests if they have eaten breakfast in the previous 30 minutes. Others’ research has demonstrated that breakfast-eaters were more punctual, had better attendance, and were less fidgety and irritable in the morning. But there are variables that are nearly impossible to control for, like children’s home lives. Maybe the children who are not fed breakfast also come from what sociologists call ”chaotic families,“ unstable in composition, dynamics, and even location. Such a family situation could cause tardiness, absence, irritability, and failure to learn.
Conversely, maybe the families that work to ensure children eat breakfast are the same types of families in which the children are given every other learning advantage. Couldn’t that account for the willingness to learn and the better attendance? The reason this matters is that non-American studies of children and breakfast have contradicted U.S. findings. A 1996 Israeli study in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine found that ”the breakfast effect“ did not extend to 11- to 13-year-olds, while a 1998 Jamaican study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (AJCN) found only small benefits in nutritional status, attendance, and achievement. The Jamaican study went so far as to recommend that schools find some other way to improve student performance.
The definitive blow comes from a 1982 AJCN study of South African 16- to 18-year-olds which found that, in all races and social classes, ”breakfast or no breakfast had no clear-cut bearing on weight, height, class position, or frequency of absence from school.“
Breakfast research for adults is virtually non-existent. One series of studies concluded that adults who eat breakfast consume more nutrients than breakfast skippers. A 1992 Vanderbilt University study found that, for moderately obese women, those who ate breakfast reduced their overall dietary fat and minimized impulsive snacking. Maybe you can generalize to men and the non-obese and maybe you can’t. Then there’s the claim that adults who eat breakfast have better physical and mental performance and are more likely to have healthy weight. But there’s almost never a ”why.“ Maybe the connection between breakfast and weight isn’t causal, but incidental. The average person isn’t likely to note the difference, but it’s a huge difference.
Most disturbingly, much of the research cited where the public is most likely to see it (popular magazines, television and radio news, and Web sites) has worrisomely vague attribution. In other words, who funded the research? No one would imply that scientists bend results to please their sponsors. But when the Kellogg Company sets the agenda, breakfast will undoubtedly be on it. Put it this way: In this age of privately funded research, who would fund a study aimed at finding out that not eating breakfast is just fine?
When people want to demonstrate how funding affects findings, they sometimes point to Oldways, a think-tank dedicated to studying and preserving ancient, presumably less processed and more healthful, diets. In the early 1990s, Oldways built its own Food Guide Pyramids for Mediterranean, Latin American, and Asian diets, in opposition to the USDA’s pyramid.
The Oldways Mediterranean pyramid features grains, olive oil, and wine, with a minimum of meat. ”A lot of their money came from the International Olive Oil Council,“ says a food industry magazine editor in the Midwest. ”The Asian pyramid coincided with an influx of money from Kikkoman.“ The editor would prefer not to be identified because she once took a Mediterranean junket paid for by the Oldways Foundation and was asked by other travelers before the trip what her article would be about. ”I haven’t taken the trip yet,“ she huffed. ”But I don’t plan on writing an article,“ she said. She was never asked on another Oldways trip.
The Vanderbilt breakfast study was, in fact, funded by the Kellogg Company. ”It didn’t turn out how they wanted, I’m sure,“ says Nashville nutritionist and writer Jamie Pope. ”I’m sure they wanted to see weight loss“ in the obese women. She says no pressure was put on her research group to produce specific results.
The other authoritative source for information on breakfast nutrition would be the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). You would think that if the USDA says breakfast is good, then everyone down the line, from public policy planners to reporters, should feel reasonably confident that this is true. But even that has an element of controversy because the USDA has another job: helping farmers sell their products. Farmers grow grain. Grain is the largest single component of breakfast foods.
If this kind of thinking seems like pure paranoia, consider the decade-long struggle to change the old ”four basic food groups“ into the ”food pyramid.“ Imagine how the meat industries felt when they were shifted from their cozy spot as one-quarter of the four basic food groups to the top of the pyramid next to sugar and fat.
Maybe our culture, both agriculturally and mythically, is just too heavily invested in breakfast to simply tell people, ”It’s okay if you aren’t hungry in the morning.“ For starters, U.S. farmers grow about a million tons of grain a year, and there’s a huge infrastructure built around marketing it. Then there’s America’s recent past. It wasn’t so long ago that people grew the oats and corn they ate for breakfast. Finally, breakfast was a warm family moment back when Americans worked on farms, or when ”going to work“ meant walking a few blocks. All that has changed, but the figure of breakfast still looms large. Breakfast skippers must feel as if the whole culture is shaking its finger at them.
But what if things were different in America? They apparently are in Jamaica, Israel, and South America, where children don’t seem to suffer much from skipping breakfast. This is also the case in other places; the Spanish, for example, eat no breakfast at all. Dinnertime in Spain is between 9 and 10 p.m., winding up around midnight. Because of this, Spaniards sleep one hour less per night than other Europeans. Undoubtedly they skip breakfast because they aren’t hungry, and because they need the extra sleep. Even Spain’s charity soup kitchens serve only lunch and dinner.
And though the Poles eat two breakfasts, it hasn’t apparently catapulted them to the top of the heap. The first Polish breakfast is a morsel of bread and some cold meat upon waking. The second is a late morning meal of hot cooked foods, something like the old Southern dinner. Are the Polish smarter for all this breakfasting? Finally, what if our country wasn’t full of factory farms whose job is to sell grain as much as it is to grow it? The Japanese eat soup and noodles for breakfast. The British eat baked beansfrom the can, for Pete’s sake.
I did, at last, find a study on adults and breakfast. It was a 1998 British study in the International Journal of Food Science and Nutrition conducted by the University of Bristol, and, surprise, it had nothing to do with cereal. Breakfast eaters proved to be less depressed, less emotionally distressed, and had lower levels of perceived stress than breakfast non-eaters.
Where does that leave a breakfast hater? Without a lot of support, after all. If you aren’t hungry in the morning, and your performance isn’t suffering, and you want to skip breakfast, Pope says, ”I’d say that’s fine.“ Even in a breakfasting country like America.
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