March 6, 2003 -- Mom was right in saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Researchers report that breakfast-eaters are far less likely to be obese or have diabetes or heart disease.
A daily breakfast may reduce the risk of becoming obese or developing signs that can lead to diabetes -- called insulin resistance syndrome -- by 35% to 50% compared with skipping the morning meal, say researchers. The study has tracked for 10 years the dietary habits of more than 2,900 Americans between ages 18 and 30 who live in four U.S. cities.
Insulin resistance syndrome is a metabolic disorder in which the body doesn't use blood sugar (glucose), efficiently, significantly boosting the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This syndrome is characterized by a combination of several factors, including obesity, high amounts of abdominal fat, high blood pressure, and elevated blood sugar or insulin levels. It can elevate triglycerides and reduce levels of "good" HDL cholesterol.
"The take-home message of this particular finding suggests that if you're trying to control or lose weight and lower risk factors of heart disease, not eating breakfast is not a good option," says researcher Linda Van Horn, PhD, MPH, RN, of Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine. "Unlike what most people may think, in trying to lose weight by cutting out foods, calories, and meals ... people who have breakfast in the morning do better. At the end of the day, they wind up eating fewer calories, and less saturated fat and cholesterol and have better overall nutritional status than people who skip that meal."
Although this finding -- presented at the American Heart Association's annual conference on Cardiovascular Disease Epidemiology and Prevention -- only looked at the importance of breakfast itself, these researchers have previously investigated the best type of morning meal to protect against these health risks.
Their recommendation: A bowl of whole-grain cereal. In a previous study, Van Horn compared whole grain cereal to other breakfast foods -- including refined "kid" cereals, breads, and other carbohydrates typically consumed for breakfast. "Whole-grain cereals were the predominant food that had a positive association, whereas other foods did not," she says.
The researchers found that overall, nearly half of whites surveyed and only one in four blacks reported eating a daily breakfast. "We have started looking at what people are eating when they eat breakfast, which led to our finding that eating whole-grain cereal each day was associated with a 15% reduction in risk for the insulin resistance syndrome," lead researcher Mark A. Pereira, PhD, of Children's Hospital in Boston, says in a prepared statement.
In past research, published in 1999, Van Horn and her colleagues found that the fiber in whole-grain cereals may protect against obesity and heart disease by improving blood sugar and cholesterol levels. And last April, they also found that dairy foods may improve insulin resistance. Insulin resistance occurs when the body begins to lose its ability to respond the hormone insulin, which is needed to convert blood sugar to energy.
"These whole-grain cereals provide a good quality source of dietary fiber that is difficult to get in other meals of the day because the concentration of fiber in whole-grain cereal is so much higher than you'd find in bread or other foods," Van Horn tells WebMD. "Perhaps the only other food that rivals it would be beans. So unless you're having minestrone at lunch, perhaps the only other way to get as much fiber as you can is in a bowl of whole-grain cereal."
Whole-grain cereals are particularly good sources of soluble fiber -- the type associated with reduced risk of heart disease. That's because soluble fiber forms a gel-like material that prevents cholesterol and saturated fats from entering the bloodstream, where they can collect and form plaques on artery walls. The insoluble fiber in these cereals, meanwhile, helps keep bowel movement regular and may help reduce risk of colon problems.
These "heart-healthy" cereals list whole grain or bran as their first ingredient and contain at least 2 grams of dietary fiber per serving. Among the most fibrous choices are bran cereal and oatmeal, which contain at least 7 grams per serving -- about one-quarter of the recommended daily intake. Van Horn says that whole-grain cereals, which are typically fortified, also contain hefty amounts of vitamins C, E and various B vitamins, as well as folic acid and various phytochemicals -- nutrients that have been implicated with reducing heart disease risk and other health problems.