Friday, September 13, 2013

Is Eating Breakfast Really Healthy?

In his book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, Taleb argued that we are not evolutionarily wired to eat (breakfast) without breaking a sweat :

The response to hunger, our antifragility, has been underestimated. We’ve been telling people to eat a good meal for breakfast so they can face the travails of the day. And it is not a new theory by empirically blind modern-day nutritionists— for instance I was struck by a dialogue in Stendhal’s monumental novel Le rouge et le noir in which the protagonist, Julien Sorel, is told “the work for the day will be long and rough, so let us fortify ourselves with a breakfast” (which in the French of the period was called “the first lunch”). Indeed, the idea of breakfast as a main meal with cereals and other such materials has been progressively shown to be harming

Let us remember that we are not designed to be receiving foods from the delivery person. In nature, we had to expend some energy to eat. Lions hunt to eat, they don’t eat their meal then hunt for pleasure. Giving people food before they expend energy would certainly confuse their signaling process. And we have ample evidence that intermittently (and only intermittently) depriving organisms of food has been shown to engender beneficial effects on many functions— Valter Longo, for instance, noted that prisoners in concentration camps got less sick in the first phase of food restriction, then broke down later.

Now Daniel Engber argues that it might be a simple case of cause and effect confusion:

As a breakfast-eater, for example, I’m more likely to work out than other people. At least that was the finding of a breakfast study from 2008, which also found that breakfasters tend to be rich and white, and less likely to indulge in cigarettes and alcohol. Any of these factors might protect someone from obesity and diabetes, so it’s hard to know what role might be left to eating breakfast. There are other confounds, too: People with lousy sleeping schedules may have less time for making pancakes. So what makes them fat—missing breakfast or not getting a good night’s rest? Here’s another: People who are trying to lose weight often make a point of missing meals. The fact that they’re on a diet, though, suggests that they’ve been gaining pounds, not shedding them. Does skipping breakfast make them fat, or do people who are getting fat choose to skip breakfast?

Such questions will never get a thorough answer if we’re stuck with the sorts of studies that have been done so far, in which large groups of people are surveyed about their eating habits, then weighed and measured over time. Indeed, Brown and his co-authors in Birmingham show that research on breakfast and obesity has been stagnating in this phase for many years. They considered 58 studies of the question, conducted in 30 countries starting in the early 1990s. Then they pooled the data as it accumulated and plotted the strength of the association between breakfast and obesity as it developed over time. (With each new study published, the link became more certain, since there were more data points in the cumulative analysis.)

No comments: