why skipping breakfast won’t kill you, at least not right away
According to the news, a new study shows that skipping breakfast puts you at a much higher risk of cardiovascular disease. But in reality, that's not at all what the study says.
Few things get pop sci reporters more excited than studies about which of our lifestyle choices could cause or prevent cancer and lengthen or shorten our lives. Does drinking coffee or really hot tea and eating pork cause cancer? Does organic food prevent it? Could wine, coffee, and a few extra pounds let you live longer? Will caloric restriction turn you into a centenarian? Or can you biohack yourself to have a short at reaching your third century of life? If you followed all the links, you probably saw that the answer is generally negative, with some complicated and important details to keep in mind. But good luck finding those details in the context-free world of news segments where fake science and bad journalism combine to create a steady toxic drip of misinformation which often creates openings for alt med shysters and scammers.
So, as a result, lifestyle studies tend to come off as arbitrary and contradictory guesses which give you very little useful information at best, or needlessly scare you at worst, and the most recent example of that is a study of 6,550 people which found that skipping breakfast raises your risk of developing a fatal cardiovascular disease by 87% over a 23 year period. Now, you may be thinking that you should make sure you eat your breakfast daily and will therefore be less likely to develop heart disease. But that’s actually not the case at all, and not what the study found. What the research were actually after is understanding what red flags show a patient’s detrimental lifestyle choices, and where those choices could lead.
It’s not that breakfast itself is truly the most important meal of the data as the ancient axiom goes, it’s that skipping breakfast is a warning sign of poor lifestyle choices in general according to the researchers. If you skip breakfast, you may also be more likely to skip other meals, eat unhealthy foods in unhealthy portions, get inadequate exercise, spend too much time sitting or standing still, and overindulge in alcohol and stimulants like coffee and energy drinks. All this tends to harden and block arteries through a combination of high cholesterol and cortisol, causing cardiovascular disease and placing you at much higher risk for a fatal heart attack or stroke. Understanding how this happens and its early warning signs is critical.
In the post-industrial world afflicted by workaholism, and pervasive and detrimental economic insecurity, cardiovascular disease is one of the top causes of death, and because it’s a result of decades of inattention to one’s health and diet, prevention and early treatment with diet and exercise are extremely important. And this is what lifestyle studies are trying to achieve. They aren’t trying to find the one key to a healthy life or weight loss because they know full well it doesn’t exist outside of quack TV shows and internet infomercials. They’re trying to identify any potential indicator of cancer or cardiovascular problems and put them in the broader context of the many choices we make over our lives to derive general recommendation for how to lessen our risk of an early death while improving our quality of life.
See: Rong, S., et. al., (2019) Association of Skipping Breakfast With Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality, Vol. 73, No. 16, DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2019.01.065