Sept. 1, 2005 - When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, most nutritionists agree that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. But what you eat is as important as when you eat, and two new studies show that cold-cereal eaters may have an edge.
In a study of girls followed from age 9 to age 19, regular cereal eaters had fewer weight problems than infrequent cereal eaters, with the risk for being overweight increasing by 13% among girls who ate cereal only occasionally.
Eating cold cereal for breakfast was also found to be more closely associated with maintaining a healthy weight than eating breakfast in general in a separate study that included adults of both sexes.
The studies were paid for by the nation's two largest cereal manufacturers -- one by General Mills and another by Kellogg.
But a dietitian who calls herself a "cereal advocate" but says she has no ties to the cereal industry tells WebMD that she isn't surprised by the findings.
"I don't work for the cereal companies, but I really do think that cereal is a pretty good food for kids and adults to eat," says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD.
"You wouldn't believe how many people skip breakfast or grab cookies or doughnuts. Cereal with milk is quick and easy, and if you choose the right cereal you get calcium, fiber, and plenty of nutrients."
Teens Tend to Skip Breakfast
Both new studies are published in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
In one, researchers reanalyzed data from a government-funded study that followed more than 2,000 young girls through their teens to identify risk factors for obesity. The original study was conducted from the mid-1980s through the 1990s.
Nearly one in three adolescent girls are overweight or obese in the U.S.
Breakfast skippers tended to weigh the most through their teen years and girls who regularly ate cereal for breakfast weighed the least. Those who ate other foods for breakfast were somewhere in the middle, says statistician Bruce Barton, PhD, who led the research team.
Other findings from the look-back analysis included:
- Breakfasts that did not include ready-to-eat cereal averaged 60% higher in fat content.
- The number of girls skipping breakfast doubled from age 9 to age 19.
- Fewer than one in 10 18-year-olds reported eating cereal for breakfast every day.
- Regular cereal eaters tended to have healthier diets overall.
"They tended to eat less fat and cholesterol and their nutritional profile was much better," Barton tells WebMD. "We can't say if eating cereal is the reason. But most cereals are heavily fortified with mineral and vitamins, and many are also high in fiber."
In addition to Barton, who is president and CEO of Maryland Medical Research Institute, researchers from General Mills took part in the study.
Breakfast and Weight Control
In the second study, researchers from Michigan State University and Kellogg analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 1999-2000, to evaluate the relationship between eating breakfast and body weight among adult men and women.
The researchers found that regular breakfast eaters were more likely to be older, female, and white than breakfast skippers. They were also more likely to exercise regularly.
Women who ate breakfast regularly tended to take in more calories overall during the day, compared with nonbreakfast eaters. But eating cereal for breakfast was more closely associated with maintaining a healthy body weight than breakfast eating in general.
Overall fat intake was also lower for men and women who reported regular cereal consumption than for those who ate other foods for breakfast.
Not Just Any Cereal
The studies did not include information on what types of cold cereals the subjects ate, and it is clear that eating a cereal loaded with sugar straight from the box is not a particularly healthy breakfast option, says Taub-Dix.
Her more ideal breakfast is a cereal with no more than 3 grams of sugar per serving and roughly 5 grams of fiber, topped with skimmed milk and berries.
If your child has to have his Cocoa Puffs, which has 13 grams of sugar per serving, she recommends cutting the sugar by mixing it with a low-sugar cereal like Cheerios or Kix.
"It will still look and taste like chocolate, but you can literally cut the sugar in half and your kids may never notice," she says.