Reduce Your Risk of Cancer: Eat Breakfast

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

OCTOBER 06, 2021

Most of us grew up hearing that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Whether our mothers insisted that we sit at the kitchen table and eat scrambled eggs or oatmeal or handed us a peanut butter sandwich as we ran for the school bus, we were encouraged or commanded to eat something. There have been many studies of school children that suggest that kids do much better if they have eaten before class, and this is likely the primary reason for many school breakfast programs.

A new study, published in Cancer Causes and Control, reports that people who regularly skip breakfast have a higher incidence of cancer.

Now a new study, published in Cancer Causes and Control, reports that people who regularly skip breakfast have a higher incidence of cancer and of cancer-related mortality. They were even reported to have a higher risk of all-cause mortality. The researchers claim that, to the best of their knowledge, this is the first report to examine the association of dietary patterns, such as skipping breakfast, and the risk of cancer diagnosis or mortality. Looking at data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an ongoing project of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the focus was on people who were 40 and older between 1988 and 1994. Yes, this was a long time ago, but the timeframe was chosen because breakfast questions were asked then, and enough years have passed to assess cancer incidence in this group.

They found that, compared to the daily breakfast eaters, people who rarely ate breakfast were younger, and a higher percentage were also smokers, obese, physically inactive, and had higher cholesterol levels. Of note, both breakfast and non-breakfast eaters had similar daily caloric intake, but the calories consumed by the latter groups were much higher in percentages of unhealthy fats and a lower percentage from proteins and carbohydrates. Clearly eating or not eating breakfast, and the daily food choices, were part of other lifestyle habits. During the long follow-up period, there were 3573 deaths among the participants with 795 related to cancer.

As arcane as it may seem at first glance, this study potentially has important clinical and public health significance. Over the past 50 years, the proportion of Americans who regularly skip breakfast has increased tremendously. It is possible that intervening in this trend could result in fewer cancers and overall better health. As many of us know, there is a lot of current interest in diets that rely on intermittent fasting that usually include skipping breakfast. Marji McCullough, ScD, RD is the Senior Scientific Director of Epidemiology Research for the American Cancer Society. She has been quoted to say that most research on the potential role of meal timing, including skipping breakfast, and the impact on metabolism, weight, and health outcomes, have been limited to animal studies. As more work is done around these questions with people, there will be better information about the possibility that regularly eating breakfast lowers one’s risk of being diagnosed with or dying from cancer.

If breakfast is generally unappealing to you, think about ways to widen the food options. There is no reason that the day’s first meal has to be the usual cereal, eggs, fruit, or toast. In many parts of the world, people begin the day with soup, fish, or vegetables. You could speak with a nutritionist about your choices or just go online and read about breakfast around the world. You might become a big fan of something new and delicious, and you can remind yourself that your mother would be proud.

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.
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