The importance of a “healthy breakfast” is a nutritional gospel. Everyone from your grandma to your personal trainer, to your favorite fitness magazine “knows” a morning meal will help you lose weight and stay lean.


But is “what everyone knows” actually true?


Sure, most research on breakfast and body comp shows that breakfast eaters tend to be leaner than non-breakfast-eaters. Unfortunately, as you’ll see below, a lot of scientific research doesn’t quite “prove” what people think it does. Yes, science is our main pathway to genuine discovery. But it’s also a human endeavor, and fallible. That’s right, despite their expertise, scientists are people too, thus, susceptible to inter-social nonsense of daily life.





There are many different ways things can go wrong in scientific reporting, from straight-up fraud to more subtle and unintentional misrepresentation.


Here are two of the more common problems:


  1. Research lacking probative value.
  2. Biased research reporting.



“Lacking probative value” is a fancy term for “beating a dead horse.” It means experiments that focus on already-answered questions, and studies designed in such a way that they can’t really provide us with any new information.


This type of research usually crops up in areas that are hot. Just like in fashion and fitness, science has its trends. If you happen to be working in a trendy area, you’re more likely to get published if you find supporting evidence for the latest big idea.



Biased interpretation of your own results means reporting that you’ve found a positive result when the evidence doesn’t actually support your assertion.


Usually, it looks like this:

Somewhere in the abstract or the conclusion, the author reports: “Weight loss increased with X.” But a careful consideration of the actual results shows no statistical difference in weight — merely a marginal difference. To be completely accurate in a case like that, the author would have to say something like: “We didn’t find a difference this time, but with larger sample size, we think that using X would increase weight loss.” But that wouldn’t sound as impressive. Which is probably why the authors don’t say it.




Supplement ads are notorious for this error. They will make a claim and cite a study in support of the claim. But the study they’re citing doesn’t actually offer any proof of what they’re claiming! This strategy works well for them since most people are persuaded by the authoritative-sounding citation alone. They never bother to check what the original study said.


Biased research reporting creates a scientific version of the broken telephone game we played as children. After a few whispered repetitions, a sentence like, “The bird is sitting on the wire,” could somehow morph into, “The bard spit on his guitar.” Over time, inaccurate causal language and misleading interpretations create an “everyone knows” reality — shared beliefs and “common wisdom” based essentially on rumor and superstition. And shared beliefs can lead to irrational habits and unhelpful actions.




Statistically speaking, an interaction effect of a genuine study between baseline (habitually eating or not eating breakfast) and experimental (starting to eat breakfast or stopping). For stats geeks, the relationship was p=0.06, so technically it wasn’t even significant.


The bottom line? It was the change that mattered — not whether the subjects ate breakfast. Or, as the study’s author said, “those who had to make the most substantial changes in eating habits to comply with the program achieved better results.”


Instead of focusing on the role that making a change seemed to play in controlling weight, they implied something quite different — that the study had established a causal relationship between eating breakfast and staying slim (or not eating breakfast and getting fat).




Well, generally, scientists are just as prone to error as anybody else! We see it time and time again. Small biases and tiny language differences cause a whisper-down-the-lane effect. And “truths” are accepted that were never true in the first place. Specifically, there’s very little evidence to suggest that skipping breakfast will cause you to get fat.


Sure, we can establish a correlation between skipping breakfast and being overweight. But many factors —  from genetics to a general lack of interest in health — could explain this relationship. We just don’t know that one causes the other.

Whatever you eat, whenever you eat, stick with your fundamental healthy habits. Eat slowly, watch your portion size, avoid distractions, and pay attention to how you feel. And, of course, try not to get carried away by rumors. Even if they seemed backed by scientists. Because those same scientists may be struggling even more than you are.


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