The United States Government routinely publishes dietary guidelines that essentially dictate food policy for the American government. Many people, from within the US and without, use these guidelines to determine what is “healthy” eating. Now, people are learning that they are apparently being snookered on a few things.
One of the biggest issues is breakfast. From the Washington Post:
Researchers at a New York City hospital several years ago conducted a test of the widely accepted notion that skipping breakfast can make you fat.
For some nutritionists, this idea is an article of faith. Indeed, it is enshrined in the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the federal government’s advice book, which recommends having breakfast every day because “not eating breakfast has been associated with excess body weight.”
As with many nutrition tips, though, including some offered by the Dietary Guidelines, the tidbit about skipping breakfast is based on scientific speculation, not certainty, and indeed, it may be completely unfounded, as the experiment in New York indicated.
At 8:30 in the morning for four weeks, one group of subjects got oatmeal, another got frosted corn flakes and a third got nothing. And the only group to lose weight was … the group that skipped breakfast. Other trials, too, have similarly contradicted the federal advice, showing that skipping breakfast led to lower weight or no change at all.
“In overweight individuals, skipping breakfast daily for 4 weeks leads to a reduction in body weight,” the researchers from Columbia University concluded in a paper published last year.
A closer look at the way that government nutritionists adopted the breakfast warning for the Dietary Guidelines shows how loose scientific guesses — possibly right, possibly wrong — can be elevated into hard-and-fast federal nutrition rules that are broadcast throughout the United States.
The studies used are what are known as “observational studies”, where scientists simply observe participants and then try to adjust for other factors called “confounders”. The problem is, it’s kind of hard to do that unless you know what all possible factors actually are.
Experiments routinely show that the observational studies results are wrong. Why is that?
First, keep in mind that experiments have control. They can control exactly how much food people are taking in at all other meals as well. So, when they skip breakfast, they getting a set number of calories the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, in an observational study, the individual who skips breakfast will likely do other things that aren’t considered “healthy”. Without knowing exactly what confounders researchers adjusted for, it becomes very difficult to know just what those are, but I have m guesses.
You see, when many people skip breakfast, they adjust for that by eating junk later in the day. These snacks tend to be heavy in sugar, which means more carbohydrates, and have a greater impact on weight than bacon and eggs ever would.
The problem is, unfortunately, that people look to government guidelines for guidance in a world with tons of information, but often short on real facts. Their hope is that with all the resources at the disposal of the United States government, they’ll have the truth.
As we’ve learned, let’s not bet on that.