Skipping Breakfast: Evidence, Beliefs, and Bias

Faith is the belief in things unseen. Science is something quite different because science relies on evidence. Belief that skipping breakfast causes weight gain is something that many health writers and scientists seem to share. According to a new publication in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, this belief has led to biased research reports and an unfortunate reliance on redundant research that proves nothing about the effect of skipping breakfast on weight gain.

But it might be that the public is not as quick to buy into that belief.

Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham analyzed consumer health, scientific, and government publications to confirm that each of these sources promote the idea that skipping breakfast causes weight gain. They also conducted a cumulative meta-analysis of studies related to this idea. The analysis showed that research to date could neither prove nor disprove the presumption that skipping breakfast causes weight gain.

Finally they reviewed scientific publications about these studies and found biased reporting in four different forms:

  1. Biased interpretation of one’s own results
  2. Improperly describing causality in one’s own results
  3. Misleading citations of others’ results
  4. Improperly describing causality in others’ results

Commenting on these findings, senior author David Allison said:

Replication in science is vital and we need to continue to promote it. But at some point, when so many studies have already shown an association, replicating the association over and over, does not increase knowledge – it seems only to “advertise” the idea and increase belief by the mere exposure effect. As a field, we need to know when to stop gratuitously replicating some types of research to just make noise for an idea we love and move on to studies which can advance our knowledge.

Intrigued by these observations, ConscienHealth checked with a representative sample of the general public. Do they believe it is true or false that skipping breakfast causes weight gain? We found that the public has not fully accepted this idea. In preliminary results from 443 respondents, 50% said it was true, 18% said it was false, and 32% were not sure.

Either the public is not so gullible as many believe or it’s simply slow to accept a concept — whether it’s proven or unproven.

Ballet Reloaded, photograph © Beat Küng / flickr

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