Understanding Breakfast Research
By John Kiefer Flex
I hate research sometimes. I love doing research and reading quality research, but I’ve really begun to hate how all the so-called diet “gurus” out there use research to suit their own purposes. When I say the word scientist, what do you think of? You probably envision someone in a lab coat, running experiments free of judgment or bias, and looking impartially at the hard data that come from their ideas. This, however, isn’t always what happens. Scientists conduct studies—and gurus read their results—with preconceived notions, wanting and expecting a particular outcome, and then skew these studies by finding populations, creating protocols, and measuring specific things that fit with their theories and give them only the results they want. A perfect example of this is the rash of epidemiological studies that have been done over the past year with regard to the effects of eating breakfast.
When these studies are set up properly, researchers are capable of showing that people who eat breakfast are healthier, weigh less, have better blood markers, and are less prone to obesity. Sounds great, right? When reports like this hit the mainstream media, breakfast is back in vogue, and everybody’s eating first thing in the morning again. When we really dig into things, however, we see that people who habitually don’t eat breakfast also drink more, smoke more, and work more. There are other stressors and confounding factors in their lives that aren’t taken into account, even in some of these researchers’ abstracts and conclusions. What they also fail to mention is that there’s ample research available that shows that when these factors are corrected, there’s either no difference between late eaters and morning eaters in this regard—or, the results reverse themselves altogether.
OUT OF CONTEXT
When you read these types of studies, pay close attention to whether the groups the researchers studied consisted of obese populations. They often do. This is important because we know that obese people have the opposite metabolic trends when compared with the non-obese. For example, with skinny people, insulin sensitivity is highest in the morning, and lowest in the evening. When you become obese, this is reversed—an effect known as the insulin paradox.So, if you’re obese, you become less insulin sensitive in the mornings, and a case can be made that it may not matter when you eat your food at all. And if you eat more of it for breakfast, then nothing at night, you’re simply giving yourself a longer fasted period—which, in and of itself—can have a number of restorative effects. One of these effects is a buildup of ketones, which are effective at enabling cells to clean themselves out, and even help to stave of Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s.
DO THE INCHES MATTER?
Another fallacy promulgated by agendadriven researchers—and interpreters of research—is the idea that subjects’ waistline circumference, and a decrease thereof, is an effective measure of whether a dietary hypothesis is correct. This idea, unfortunately, carries no meaning whatsoever unless we know the subject’s actual body-fat measurements.When waistline circumference decreases, we could be seeing this decrease because the subject has lost internal organ mass. When your body perceives any type of starvation, one of the first reserves it taps into, depending on the diet you’re using, is lean tissue—especially organ tissue. This measurement only opens up more questions. It doesn’t provide the answer to anything.
Another research argument in favor of eating breakfast is the idea that it lowers levels of both insulin and triglycerides throughout the day. First, this is completely contradictory to several studies that have found that eating a carb-laden breakfast first thing in the morning will actually increase triglyceride levels all day and have an adverse effect on fat mobilization. It’s hard to say whether these results are skewed by the use of obese people without addressing each individual study that makes the claim, but with most studies, this is precisely what’s happening. When obese people are studied, they’re usually put on a far healthier diet in general, because it’s considered unethical—in most cases, anyway—to allow them to continue to be grossly unhealthy.When you put an unhealthy person on a healthier diet that’s low in fat—regardless of whether they’re eating a big breakfast or not—you’re instantly going to see lower triglyceride levels throughout the day. Sure, they’re going to experience changes in their insulin and glucose sensitivity, but that’s not a particularly good thing, because their bodies won’t be able to use or mobilize fat for energy. The entire process is somewhat contradictory.
YOU’RE LOSING WEIGHT. SO WHAT?
Finally, we come to the ultimate agendadriven researcher’s ace in the hole: The idea of “weight loss.” The problem here is that when researchers and gurus talk about big breakfasts eliciting weight loss, they’re not addressing the type of weight that’s being lost. Studies have made this claim repeatedly for the past 20–30 years—that breakfast eaters lose more weight than people who eat the majority of their calories in the evening. But this happens because the breakfast eaters lose significantly more muscle mass than their late-eating counterparts. Conversely, the late eaters preserve their muscle, which is a primary indicator of many positive things, including overall health.With research, everything matters. What kind of population is being studied? Are they obese? Are they sick? What exactly are they eating, and when are they eating it? When we say that skipping breakfast is contributing to the obesity epidemic, we’re putting the cart before the horse. Is that what caused the problem? Or is it because obese people are metabolically deranged and elicit results that are the diametric opposite of what you’d find in normal populations?When you’re reading these studies—or, worse, when you’re reading interpretations from gurus—you have to read between the lines. What works for certain populations, i.e., the obese and the unhealthy, isn’t necessarily a good recommendation for healthy people or performance athletes.