Tag Archives: Breakfast Cereal

Feel Free To Skip Breakfast Again And Again And Again

It seems like every 2 years the skeptical cardiologist has to defend skipping breakfast.

I first described how irritating and puzzling I find the concept that skipping breakfast causes obesity and heart disease in a 2013 post entitled “Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day: feel free to skip it.” When I’m irritated with a ridiculous concept I ask lots of questions:

Why would I eat breakfast if I am not hungry in order to lose weight? What constitutes breakfast? Is it the first meal you eat after sleeping? If so, wouldn’t any meal eaten after sleeping qualify even it is eaten in the afternoon? Is eating a donut first thing in the morning really healthier than eating nothing? Why would your first meal be more important than the last? isn’t it the content of what we eat that is important more than the timing?

Most of the studies on the proposed effect of breakfast on obesity (PEBO), I pointed out, are observational studies which cannot prove causality and the few, small prospective randomized studies don’t clearly support the hypothesis.

I suggested that PEBO comes from the breakfast food and cereal industry and should be ignored.



Writing an update on my post in 2015 I referenced Melanie Warner’s excellent book on the methods of the food industry entitled “Pandora’s Lunchbox”

“Walk down a cereal aisle today or go onto a brand’s Web site, and you will quickly learn that breakfast cereal is one of the healthiest ways to start the day, chock full of nutrients and containing minimal fat. “Made with wholesome grains,” says Kellogg’s on its Web site. “Kellogg’s cereals help your family start the morning with energy by delivering a number of vital, take-on-the-day nutrients—nutrients that many of us, especially children, otherwise might miss.” It sounds fantastic. But what you don’t often hear is that most of these “take-on-the-day” nutrients are synthetic versions added to the product, often sprayed on after processing. It’s nearly impossible to find a box of cereal in the supermarket that doesn’t have an alphabet soup of manufactured vitamins and minerals, unless you’re in the natural section, where about half the boxes are fortified.”

The Kellogg’s and General Mills of the world strongly promoted the concept that you shouldn’t skip breakfast because they had developed products that stayed fresh on shelves for incredibly long periods of time. They could be mixed with easily accessible (low-fat, no doubt) milk to create inexpensive,  very quickly and easily made, ostensibly healthy breakfasts.

Unfortunately, the processing required to make these cereals last forever involved removing the healthy components.

As Warner writes about W.K. Kellogg:

“In 1905, he changed the Corn Flakes recipe in a critical way, eliminating the problematic corn germ, as well as the bran. He used only the starchy center, what he referred to as “the sweetheart of the corn,” personified on boxes by a farm girl clutching a freshly picked sheaf. This served to lengthen significantly the amount of time Corn Flakes could sit in warehouses or on grocers’ shelves but compromised the vitamins housed in the germ and the fiber residing in the bran”



In 2017 I felt compelled to revisit the topic when a New York Times piece made the case for making breakfast a feast:

The writer, Roni Rabin (who has a degree in journalism from Columbia University)  struggles to support her sense that there is a “growing body of research” suggesting we should all modify our current dietary habits in order to eat a  breakfast and make breakfast the largest meal of the day

My post entitled  “Ignore The New York Times and The American Heart Association and Feel Free to Skip Breakfast” examined the weak evidence for benefits of “mindful” eating and harms of skipping breakfast.


A new study has popped up and, of course, been widely publicized as supporting eating breakfast. Fortunately, it caught the eye of Peter Attia thus saving me from having to read the article.

Below are some of his scathing comments, taken from one of his non-lame weekly emails:

You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. “What is less commonly mentioned,” writes Alex Mayyasi in The Atlantic, “is the origin of this ode to breakfast: a 1944 marketing campaign launched by General Foods, the manufacturer of Grape Nuts, to sell more cereal.”

Seventy-five years later, here’s the latest report from the April issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology: “Taken together, these studies [showing a positive association between skipping breakfast and CVD and CVD risk factors] as well as our findings underscore the importance of eating breakfast as a simple way to promote cardiovascular health and prevent cardiovascular morbidity and mortality.”
What were the findings? Let’s look at a few newspapers:

  • “Want to Lower Your Risk for Heart Disease? Eat Breakfast Every Morning” (Healthline)
  • “Eating breakfast? Skipping a morning meal has higher risk of heart-related death, study says” (USA TODAY)
  • “Study: Skipping breakfast increases risk of heart disease mortality by 87 percent (FOX)”

(You may notice that all three headlines imply causality.)

Looks like General Foods was right. Time to reach for the Lucky Charms? Perhaps it’s time to put on our critical thinking cap instead. The actual study, and the media coverage of it, is a part of the Groundhog Day that is observational epidemiology (for more on the limitations of this type of research, check out Studying Studies: Part II). This was a prospective cohort study pulling data from NHANES III, looking at people who reportedly eat breakfast every day to people who never eat breakfast, and then following up with them (about 19 years later on average), tallying up the deaths from CVD and deaths from all causes.

One question to ask about the population studied is: was eating breakfast or not eating breakfast the only difference between these two groups? In other words, were there any confounding factors (for more on confounding, see Studying Studies: Part IV)? The authors reported that, “participants who never consumed breakfast were more likely to be non-Hispanic black, former smokers, heavy drinkers, unmarried, physically inactive, and with less family income, lower total energy intake, and poorer dietary quality, when compared with those who regularly ate breakfast.” Not only that, “participants who never consumed breakfast were more likely to have obesity, and higher total blood cholesterol level than those who consumed breakfast regularly.” They also had a higher reported incidence of diabetes and dyslipidemia. Read that again, please.

While the study used statistical models to “adjust for” many of these potential confounders, it’s extremely difficult (actually, it’s impossible) to accurately and appropriately adjust for what amounts to fundamentally different people. The healthy user bias (or the inverse, an unhealthy user bias) is virtually impossible to tease out of these studies (the healthy user bias is covered in more depth in Studying Studies: Part I). Not only that, you never really know what you’re not looking for. This is typically referred to as residual confounding in the literature, where other factors may be playing a role that go unmeasured by the investigators.

I haven’t even yet mentioned the misleading nature of reporting relative risk — in this case, an associated 87% (reported in the study as a hazard ratio of 1.87) — without reporting absolute risk. The question you should always ask is, 87% greater than what? To get an idea of the associated absolute risk, the number of CVD deaths in the “every day” breakfast group were 415 out of a total of 3,862 people over 16.7 years (that’s an unadjusted rate of 10.7%) while the numbers for the “never” breakfast folks were 41 CVD deaths out of a total of 336 people over 16.7 years (unadjusted rate of 12.2%). That’s an absolute difference of 1.5% over almost 17 years (annually, this is an absolute difference of 0.09%). Granted, this is before adjustment of the myriad confounders (including the biggest “risk factor” for CVD death, age, in which the “never” breakfast group was younger on average at baseline), but it gives you an idea that we’re looking at small differences even over the course of a couple of decades. This looks a lot difference on paper than an associated 87% increased risk of CVD death. (For more on absolute risk and relative risk, see Studying Studies: Part I.)

There’s more:

  • What were the participants actually eating for breakfast? We don’t know. The investigators didn’t have information about what foods and beverages they consumed.
  • Did participants change their breakfast eating (or abstaining) habits over the course of almost 20 years? We don’t know. Information on breakfast eating was only collected at baseline.
  • Could there be errors in the classification of the causes of death in the participants? It’s possible.
  • What constitutes skipping breakfast? Was it the timing of the first meal of the day? We don’t know. Participants were asked, “How often do you eat breakfast?” but there was no definition of what that means, exactly.

What’s more likely: reported skipping breakfast was a marker for a lifestyle and environment that may have predisposed these people to a higher risk of CVD death or that skipping breakfast itself causes CVD death?

Go ahead and skip all the breakfasts you want. And please forward this to the next 10 people who tell you it’s unhealthy to do so.

And ditto for this post.

Breakfastingly Yours,

-ACP

Feel Free To Skip Breakfast Again

My apologies for inadvertently publishing an incomplete post this morning. And my thanks to my many readers who notified me of same.

I was asked a question on my Facebook page: “Do I take requests? And would I write about whether eating breakfast was important?”

I do take requests but I already written about breakfast in 2013 in a post entitled “Breakfast is not the most important meal of the day: Feel Free to skip it.”

This request reminded me of a chapter from Melanie Warner’s excellent analysis of the food industry, “Pandora’s Lunchbox.” I had pulled a quote from my iBook version of that book and pondered writing a blog post on breakfast cereal as an update to my previous breakfast post.

The quote was:

“Walk down a cereal aisle today or go onto a brand’s Web site, and you will quickly learn that breakfast cereal is one of the healthiest ways to start the day, chock full of nutrients and containing minimal fat. “Made with wholesome grains,” says Kellogg’s on its Web site. “Kellogg’s cereals help your family start the morning with energy by delivering a number of vital, take-on-the-day nutrients—nutrients that many of us, especially children, otherwise might miss.” It sounds fantastic. But what you don’t often hear is that most of these “take-on-the-day” nutrients are synthetic versions added to the product, often sprayed on after processing. It’s nearly impossible to find a box of cereal in the supermarket that doesn’t have an alphabet soup of manufactured vitamins and minerals, unless you’re in the natural section, where about half the boxes are fortified.”

The Kellogg’s and General Mills of the world strongly promoted the concept that you shouldn’t skip breakfast because they had developed products that stayed fresh on shelves for incredibly long periods of time. They could be mixed with easily accessible (low-fat, no doubt) milk to create inexpensive,  very quickly and easily made, ostensibly healthy breakfasts.

Unfortunately, the processing required to make these cereals last forever involved removing the healthy components.

As Warner writes about W.K. Kellogg:

“In 1905, he changed the Corn Flakes recipe in a critical way, eliminating the problematic corn germ, as well as the bran. He used only the starchy center, what he referred to as “the sweetheart of the corn,” personified on boxes by a farm girl clutching a freshly picked sheaf. This served to lengthen significantly the amount of time Corn Flakes could sit in warehouses or on grocers’ shelves but compromised the vitamins housed in the germ and the fiber residing in the bran”

This is a very familiar story in the world of food processing;  Warner covers, nicely, the same processes occurring with cheese and with milk, among other things.

I ended my 2013 post with these words:

IMG_3549My advice to overweight or obese patients:
Eat when you’re hungry.

Skip breakfast if you want.
If you want to eat breakfast, feel free to eat eggs or full-fat dairy (including butter).
These foods are nutrient-dense and do not increase your risk of heart disease, even if you have high cholesterol.
You will be less hungry and can eat less throughout the day than if you were eating sugar-laden, highly processed food-like substances.

At the time, this seemed like horribly contrarian advice, but in the last year and a half, more and more authorities are agreeing with these concepts.

-ACP

 

 

Statin Drugs Have Benefits Beyond Cholesterol Lowering

For most of the last 25 years I have told patients when I recommend  a statin drug to them that they should take it in order to lower their bad cholesterol (and raise the good cholesterol) thereby lowering their risk of future heart attacks.

I based this statement on my understanding of large statin trials which demonstrated reduction in heart attacks seemingly closely tied to drops in the bad cholesterol level.

Although I was aware of the so-called “pleiotropic” (meaning effecting multiple pathways leading to atherosclerosis) of statins it was easier to point to the cholesterol lowering effects and unify that message with the recommendation to reduce fat and cholesterol in the diet , thereby lowering cholesterol in the blood and arteries and cut heart attack risks.

Thus emerged a very simple (and likely false) paradigm: Fat in the diet causes fat in the blood which causes fat in the arteries which causes fatty plaques in the coronary arteries which causes heart attacks when they get too big and block off the blood flow.

I, like most cardiologists and lay people  mistakenly assumed that since lower bad cholesterol levels associated with taking a statin drug were associated with lower heart attack risks then dietary changes aimed at lowering bad cholesterol levels would also lower heart attack risk.

It turns out that we don’t really know how the statins reduce heart attacks . As a recent review points out:

 some of the cholesterol-independent or “pleiotropic” effects of statins involve improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response. Furthermore, statins have beneficial extrahepatic effects on the immune system, CNS, and bone. Many of these pleiotropic effects are mediated by inhibition of isoprenoids, which serve as lipid attachments for intracellular signaling molecules. In particular, inhibition of small GTP-binding proteins, Rho, Ras, and Rac, whose proper membrane localization and function are dependent on isoprenylation, may play an important role in mediating the pleiotropic effects of statins.

Supporting the non cholesterol lowering effects of statins on reducing CVD are the following observations

-Most heart attack victims don’t have elevated bad cholesterol levels and dietary reduction of bad cholesterol doesn’t seem very effective at preventing heart attacks.

-Drugs, like Zetia or ezetimibe which lower cholesterol level by other mechanisms don’t seem to prevent atherosclerosis even though they substantially lower bad cholesterol levels.

-Statin drugs reduce heart attacks in patients who have normal or low bad cholesterol levels

What Causes Atherosclerosis?

An article (Innate and adaptive inflammation as a Therapeutic Target in Vascular Disease) published in JACC recently by Tousoulis,et al. summarizes the current understanding of how atherosclerosis develops and the multiple ways that statins may affect that process. They write

Atherosclerosis, once thought to be a lipid storage disease, is now considered a chronic low-grade inflammatory condition that affects the vascular wall. It is characterized by the deposition of cholesterol and lipids followed by infiltration of T cells and macrophages, all as a result of an endothelial injury response.

I’m including this figure from the article to give you some idea of how incredibly complicated the process is.

atherosclerosis
Overview of Mechanisms Involved in Atherosclerosis Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is oxidized in the presence of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and binds to proteoglycans (heparin sulfate) while simultaneously stimulating the endothelium, leading to adhesion molecule overexpression and increasing its permeability. Apart from this action, oxidized low-density lipoprotein (ox-LDL) inhibits nitric oxide (NO) production, prohibiting vasodilation. Furthermore, cytokines and other chemoattractant molecules, such as MCP-1, are secreted, favoring leukocyte adhesion. Leukocytes come into random contact with the activated endothelium and, due to interactions with adhesion molecules, roll and tether and are subsequently firmly arrested. In addition, leukocytes transmigrate into the subendothelial space, where they differentiate into macrophages, which in turn take up ox-LDL, forming foam cells. Ox-LDL antigens are presented by macrophage major histocompatibility complex class II (MHC-II) proteins and are recognized by CD4+ T cells. These preferentially differentiate into Th-1 cells, pro-inflammatory cytokine production. Finally, smooth muscle cell (SMC) proliferation and migration are induced as a result of cytokine and growth factor secretion.

Can you imagine trying to explain this to the average patient?

My eyes glazed over once I reached MCP-1.

Thus, doctors end up giving the simple, accepted conventional wisdom that we are “treating” high cholesterol by giving statin drugs. What we are really treating is atherosclerosis. And statins are the only effective drug treatment we have identified for this ubiqitous  and complex process.

It is entirely possible that the lower LDL cholesterol caused by statin drugs is totally unrelated to their ability to forestall atherosclerosis. The new cholesterol guidelines reflect this concept as they don’t recommend treating to an LDL target level.

I end with the closing comments from the article by Tousoulis, et al.

Given the fact that atherosclerosis is a multivariable disease, with several molecules involved in each stage, it is vey difficult to find an effective treatment. However, statins prove to be the most effective treatment so far because they interfere with most of the critical components of the atherosclerotic process and have been proven to have beneficial effects. Further to their well-established impact on nonspecific low-grade inflammation, statins also appear to have significant effects on innate and adaptive immunity that have been underestimated so far.

Breakfast is Not The Most important Meal of the Day: Feel Free to Skip it

It always irritates me when a friend tells me that I should eat breakfast because it is “the most important meal of the day”. Many in the nutritional mainstream have propagated this concept along with the idea that skipping breakfast contributes to obesity. The mechanism proposed seems to be that when you skip breakfast you end up over eating later in the day because you are hungrier.

The skeptical cardiologist is puzzled. Why would i eat breakfast if I am not hungry in order to lose weight? What constitutes breakfast? Is it the first meal you eat after sleeping? If so, wouldn’t any meal eaten after sleeping qualify even it is eaten in the afternoon? Is eating a donut first thing in the morning really healthier than eating nothing? Why would your first meal be more important than the last? isn’t it the content of what we eat that is important more than the timing?

The 2010 dietary guidelines state

eat a nutrient-dense breakfast. Not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight, especially among children and adolescents. Consuming breakfast also has been associated with weight loss and weight loss maintenance, as well as improved nutrient intake

The US Surgeon General website advises that we encourage kids to eat only when they are hungry but also states

Eating a healthy breakfast is a good way to start the day and may be important in achieving and maintaining a healthy weight

A recent study anayzes the data in support of the “proposed effect of breakfast on obesity” (PEBO) and found them lacking.
This is a fascinating paper that analyzes how scientific studies which are inconclusive can be subsequently distorted or spun by biased researchers to support their positions. It has relevance to how we should view all observational studies.

Observational studies abound in the world of nutritional research. The early studies by Ancel Keys establishing a relationship between fat consumption and heart disease are a classic example. These studies cannot establish causality. For example, we know that countries that consume large amounts of chocolate per capita have large numbers of Nobel Prize winners per capitaChocolate Consumption and Nobel Laureates
Common sense tells us that it is not the chocolate consumption causing the Nobel prizes or vice versa but likely some other factor or factors that is not measured.

Most of the studies on PEBO are observational studies and the few, small prospective randomized studies don’t clearly support the hypothesis.

Could the emphasis on eating breakfast come from the “breakfast food industry”?
I’m sure General Mills and Kellogg’s would sell a lot less of their highly-processed, sugar-laden breakfast cereals if people didn’t think that breakfast was the most important meal of the day.

My advice to overweight or obese patients:
Eat when you’re hungry. Skip breakfast if you want.
If you want to eat breakfast, feel free to eat eggs or full-fat dairy (including butter)
These foods are nutrient-dense and do not increase your risk of heart disease, even if you have high cholesterol.
You will be less hungry and can eat less throughout the day than if you were eating sugar-laden, highly processed food-like substances.

.

.