Unintended Consequences from Pushing Breakfast

“All happiness depends on a leisurely breakfast,” according to author and journalist John Gunter. It also helps with academic achievement and school attendance. However, despite the fervent wishes of the breakfast fan club, breakfast is not the cure for obesity. If you have any doubt, you’re just not paying attention. And a new study today in JAMA Pediatrics makes this abundantly clear.

In fact, pushing breakfast can have an unintended consequence of pushing obesity prevalence higher.

A Study of Breakfast in the Classroom

Breakfast in the Classroom is a respected program that’s quite effective for extending the reach of school breakfasts. It’s important because many kids don’t get breakfast at home and can’t get to school early for breakfast in the cafeteria. Universal access to breakfast in the classroom can also help with stigma attached to a free breakfast.

Some breakfast fans will even point to a correlation between school breakfast and a healthy weight trajectory as evidence that school breakfast could help with obesity rates. Of course, a correlation is not proof of causing an effect.

That’s why Heather Polonsky and colleagues mounted an ambitious study of classroom breakfasts in Philadelphia schools. They wanted to see if the program could indeed help lower the incidence of overweight and obesity. But they got an unexpected result.

The incidence of overweight and obesity combined didn’t go up or down. It was unchanged by classroom breakfasts. However, both the incidence and prevalence of obesity went up. Oops.

Incredulous Breakfast Fans

This is tough news for big breakfast fans to swallow. Maybe they just offered the wrong stuff for breakfast, suggested one expert. Can’t we have a do-over?

Instead of trying to reject these results, Erika Cheng and Aaron Carroll offered a thoughtful editorial to go with the study. Cheng explains:

I don’t think anybody wants to detract from the positive aspects of providing breakfast to kids in school. For some kids, it’s the only food they get in a day. But we have both food insecurity and obesity, and we need to balance these two public health problems

Some people love breakfast and some hate it. Kids probably do better in school if they have it. But we better be careful about pushing breakfast too hard. More is not always better.

Click here for the study and here for the editorial. For a study of how classroom breakfasts affect school outcomes, click here. For more reporting on this study, click here and here.

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February 26, 2019

2 Responses to “Unintended Consequences from Pushing Breakfast”

  1. February 26, 2019 at 7:11 am, Allen Browne said:

    Let’s apply some physiology:

    No breakfast, hunger, food insecurity is all stressful and disturbs the energy regulatory system.

    Breakfast, temporary lack of hunger, knowing you will get breakfast relieves stress and distractions. This leads to better school performance.

    But breakfast, temporary lack of hunger and knowing you will get breakfast does not fix a broken energy regulatory system nor does it lead to the defense of a healthy weight.

    Physiology and biology and homeostasis can make sense of all this. But they unfortunately show that the problem of obesity is far more complex than having a good breakfast.


    • February 26, 2019 at 8:19 am, Ted said:

      Spot on, Allen!