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Skipping breakfast might do a dieter good, scientists say

By Mary Macvean
Monday, July 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Last week, researchers reported that skipping breakfast was linked to heart disease. A few days later comes word that skipping breakfast could be a good weight-loss strategy, because people don't make up for all those calories later in the day.

Should we tear our hair out in frustration? Or cozy up to the scrambled eggs?

“I'm very concerned about that. We in nutrition seem to put out contradictory diet messages,” said David Levitsky, a Cornell professor of nutritional sciences and psychology and the senior author of the breakfast and calories study.

His work, published in the July issue of the journal Physiology and Behavior, suggests that people trying to lose weight might find skipping breakfast a few times a week a reasonable strategy.

It's common belief that people who skip breakfast overeat later in the day. But that's “based on a myth, not on hard data,” Levitsky said by phone. It's hard to measure what people eat, because memories are faulty and people don't do a great job at estimating amounts.

So, the Cornell researchers had volunteers, students who did not know the real point of the study, either eat or skip breakfast in their food lab, and they measured what those people ate the rest of the day. By the end of the day, those who went without breakfast had eaten an average of 408 fewer calories.

“If you skip breakfast, you may be hungrier, but you won't eat enough calories to make up for the lost breakfast,” Levitsky said in a statement.

And that's important in a society trying to fight an obesity epidemic, he said.

“Undoubtedly, the biggest medical problem we have is related to weight,” Levitsky said. “What we have to learn how to do is to eat less. This is a message that the food industry does not want to hear and they are trying all kinds of things to get around this.”

What about people who won the weight battle — keeping off at least 30 pounds for a year or more — and are part of the National Weight Control Registry? They eat breakfast.

“You're talking about the exceptions,” Levitsky said. Those people are not like most people: They are more health-conscious, they exercise more, they're extraordinarily watchful over what they eat. “It's dangerous to extrapolate from them,” he said.

In another study, released July 29 in the journal Circulation, researchers in Boston found that men who skipped breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease than men who ate breakfast. The researchers also found, using a large ongoing study of mostly white men, that those who ate late at night had a 55 percent higher risk of coronary heart disease.

Snacking and skipping breakfast are common among Americans, the researchers said.

So, does that mean we'll weigh less when we get coronary heart disease? No, Levitksy said. If you dig deep into both studies, he said, there may be no contradiction.

Larger people are more likely to skip breakfast, “and we know larger people have a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease,” he said. So, the results could be related to the person's overall condition.

Levitsky does not eat breakfast but said, “Don't take away my coffee.”

Mary MacVean is a staff writer for the Los Angeles Times.

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