Our Opinion: Breaking the fast

Wednesday July 24, 2013

Perhaps mom really does know best when she tells you to eat your breakfast because it's the most important meal of the day.

Previous research already has shown that eating a healthy breakfast is beneficial for controlling weight and improving classroom performance. The latest study adds one more argument in favor of breaking the fast - reducing the risk of heart attack. The new study, published in the journal Circulation, finds that men who routinely skipped breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of having a heart attack or dying from coronary heart disease compared to men who ate breakfast, according to a National Public Radio report. The researchers aren't certain what accounts for the benefits, but they believe several biological mechanisms could be at play. When you prolong fasting by skipping breakfast you can put a strain on the body, says study author Leah Cahill, a research fellow at the Harvard School of Public Health. "And over many years it can lead to insulin sensitivity, which can lead to (type-2) diabetes, (and) it can lead to high blood pressure," she says, which over time can lead to heart disease.

In other words, she's making the case that the timing of meals really does matter.

"We really saw that breakfast itself was important," concludes Cahill. Whether it's skipping breakfast in the morning or eating very late at night, this pattern of eating may lead to adverse metabolic effects that set the stage for heart disease.

Researchers who study circadian rhythms say these findings make sense, given that the act of eating plays a critical role in resetting our internal clocks.

"For a very long time we thought that light is the cue that resets the brain clock," Satchin Panda, an associate professor in the Regulatory Biology Laboratory at Salk Institute, told NPR. "But slowly we are learning that actually it's food that's the biggest cue to reset the clock."

He says the resetting of the clock is key since it helps our bodies perform optimally. If you change the timing of food on different days, then the clock is not getting the same cue everyday, Panda says, so "the clock goes haywire and our body becomes less efficient in processing the food."

Public reaction to this latest study is mixed. Some people posting on Internet message boards say the findings confirm what they already know - that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. However, others point out that the study shows a correlation between eating breakfast and being healthier, not causation.

Indeed, even Rachel Johnson, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont, told NPR that she herself does not eat right after waking up.

"I don't tend to wake up real hungry," said Johnson, who is also a spokeswoman for the American Heart Association.

However, Johnson did say she is convinced by the body of evidence that breakfast has its benefits and said she usually eats a mid-morning meal, but her advice: "Don't force it. If you're not a breakfast eater, don't just add the calories on top of what you're doing and expect you're going to be miraculously healthier."

She says when it comes to eating in the morning, let hunger pangs be your guide.

That's sage advice. And let's be clear here: Having breakfast doesn't necessarily mean eating a full plate of the traditional eggs, bacon and toast. It could be something as simple as a banana and a glass of milk. So whether it's 7 a.m. or 10 a.m., do as your mother says and eat your breakfast.


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