Is it bad for your health to skip breakfast? In the midst of the intermittent fasting hype, many were no doubt unnecessarily scared away by media alerts some time ago.
As usual this was just based on inconclusive statistics from a survey. There’s no evidence of any causation, as several news reports made it sound like:
- USA Today: Skipping breakfast may increase heart attack risk
- The Huffington Post: Skipping Breakfast Tied To Heart Attack, Coronary Heart Disease Risk
- The Telegraph: Skipping breakfast linked to heart disease?
To eat or not to eat
No wonder people stop listening to health alerts in the media. This is an excellent example of the bizarre reasoning that such statistical reports may lead to.
How can it, according to the study, be harmful not to eat, but yet more harmful to eat?
- According to the study people who don’t eat breakfast have a 27% increased risk of heart disease.
- Meanwhile, people who eat after having gone to bed have a 55% increased risk.
In other words: it’s claimed that eating at night is dangerous. In the morning it’s dangerous not to eat. Or like Swedish paper Dagens Nyheter puts it:
According to the researcher, the effect on health is similar, although the opposite: Nightly meals strain the body because it doesn’t have time to digest food properly. This may lead to the same problems as fasting: high blood pressure, weight gain, changes in blood sugar levels.
Therefore, eating is as bad for your health as not eating. It will also produce the same health problems, depending on how early in the day you eat. And yes: you’ll gain weight both from eating and from not eating. At least this is what the researcher’s statistics show.
There are probably others than me who’d like to ask the researcher at what time of night that food suddenly starts producing the exact opposite effect on weight and health. This could be very useful information especially for shift workers and early-birds!
Statistics and Pseudoscience
The above is, of course, in all probability nonsense. This is what happens if, in retrospect, you try to force strained explanations to false statistical findings.
Similar statistical findings from such inconclusive questionnaire studies are most often incorrect. In general, there’s a 80-90% chance that such statistical findings are incorrect. In this case meaning that skipping breakfast isn’t dangerous at all.
Reading for those who have a special interest and want to understand more on the subject than most health journalists:
In this study, it’s clear that people who skipped breakfast also smoked more, moved less and drank more alcohol, etc. They picked a group of people living a generally unhealthy lifestyle – and then blamed their health problems on not eating breakfast. In reality, the cause could be something completely different.
Much like the study that found that people who were careless with shaving died prematurely. Is it deadly to have a beard? Hardly. But people who don’t shave properly are more likely to be careless with other things.
The Real Danger
The real danger is this continuous stream of media alerts, that unnecessarily worries a lot of people. This is what a true headline should have looked like:
Skipping breakfast may increase the risk of heart disease
After this, the article should have made it clear that this was speculation and highly uncertain statistics. Nothing else. Personally, I think it’s extremely unlikely that this is true.
My advice? Eat a good breakfast if you’re hungry and want to. Skip breakfast if you want to and if you’re not hungry. It’s hardly harmful. And no, you’ll never ever gain weight by not eating.
As if the above wasn’t bad enough, I watched a 30-second-long interview on Swedish Television with the study’s main author. Here’s what she claims happens when you fast:
- A short fasting period will lead to “high levels of cholesterol”, she says. This is wrong. When fasting, the cholesterol level is virtually unchanged (except for triglyceride levels which instead will drop).
- Fasting increases insulin levels, she claims. This is completely wrong – insulin levels are at their lowest when fasting.
- Fasting increases blood pressure, she says. In reality blood pressure is at its lowest in the morning as you wake up, fasting.
Find five errors.