Dan Gorodezky

A recent Yale study found that children who eat two breakfasts are less likely to be overweight than those who do not eat breakfast at all.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Yale School of Public Health and the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, involved nearly 600 middle school students from 12 randomly selected schools in the New Haven public school district where children were provided free breakfasts and lunches. The researchers tracked the students over a three-year period — between fifth and seventh grade — in an effort to explore the association between breakfast patterns and weight status over time among school-age children. The study identified three broad groups of breakfast eaters: inconsistent eaters, regular eaters and double-breakfast eaters. The researchers concluded that there were increased odds of obesity among inconsistent eaters compared with double-breakfast eaters. They also found that the average weight change over three years for double-breakfast eaters was no different from the weight change of students who ate only one breakfast. The study was published in the journal Pediatric Obesity on March 17, 2016.

“Students who ate breakfast at home and then at school were not more likely to be overweight or to gain more weight over the three-year study compared to other students,” said Marlene Schwartz GRD ’96, co-author of the study and director of the Rudd Center.

The study comes in the wake of concerns regarding the School Breakfast Program, a federally subsidized program that provides children free school breakfasts. As of 2010 the SBP was the second largest of the targeted food aid programs administrated by the Food and Nutrition Service, feeding 16 million children, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While advocates of the program see it as a key way to combat hunger in food-insecure regions across the U.S., critics, including some New York City leaders in public health reform who have conducted similar studies, believe the program may promote double-eating and consequently increase the risk of obesity among children. While direct opposition to free breakfasts is less common, criticism is generally directed toward strategies designed to promote use of the program, such as the provision of breakfast in classrooms or in grab-and-go bags. According to Schwartz it was these concerns that provided the inspiration for the study.

“The concern that providing breakfasts at schools increases the risk of childhood obesity is what we really wanted to test,” Schwartz said.

In an interview with the News, professor Mary Rudolf, consultant pediatrician and specialist in infant growth and nutrition, said that while the result seems “a little extraordinary,” when it comes to children, there is definitely a link between eating breakfast and remaining healthy and also performing well academically. Rudolf also voiced her support for programs that provide children free school breakfasts.

“I think we know that many children skip breakfast or aren’t provided with breakfast for a variety of reasons,” Rudolf said. “Therefore, if it’s going to help children in terms of academic performance as much as in weight control, it makes sense that breakfast is offered.”

While the study demonstrated that eating two breakfasts did not put children at higher risk of obesity, it did not seek to explain why this was the case. While it is possible that eating two breakfasts reduces food consumption later on in the day, according to Margaret Read, a study co-author and research associate at the Rudd Center, further research is needed to fully explain the findings.

Read explained that the study, being observational and not experimental, did not establish a causal association between breakfast consumption and weight outcomes. Additionally, the researchers did not measure the quality or quantity of the breakfast consumed and did not track what the children ate throughout the day, Read added.

“What we didn’t know was what the nutritional content of the breakfast at home was,” Read said. “Additionally, we didn’t really know the children’s diets the rest of the day.”

While the study may have successfully allayed concerns about the provision of free breakfast in schools, it is only the “first step,” Read said. Schwartz said she believes it would be helpful if future research focused on establishing a causal link between skipping breakfast and being overweight among school-age children.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were classified as overweight or obese.