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Mark Pereira

Mark Pereira, a professor in the University's School of Public Health, says the role of breakfast in promoting adolescent health deserves more attention.

Champions of breakfast

A study suggests that for teens, the road to good health starts at the breakfast table

By Laura Stroup and Deane Morrison

March 4, 2008

Teenagers are notorious for their appetites, but not having any at breakfast time may not be such a good idea, according to a study by the University's School of Public Health. Researchers in the school's Project EAT (Eating Among Teens) have found new evidence to support the importance of encouraging youth to eat breakfast regularly. When they examined the association between breakfast frequency and five-year body weight change in more than 2,200 adolescents (roughly 1,000 boys and 1,200 girls), they found the daily breakfast eaters tended to gain less weight and have lower body mass index levels--an indicator of how appropriate a person's weight is for their height--than those who had skipped breakfast as adolescents. The results also indicated that daily breakfast eaters ate a healthier diet and were more physically active than breakfast skippers during adolescence. The teens' habits were assessed by questionnaires. Mark Pereira, one of the authors, says the study stands out among the literature on the topic of breakfast habits and obesity risk because of its size and duration. "The dose-response findings between breakfast frequency and obesity risk, even after taking into account physical activity and other dietary factors, suggests that eating breakfast may have important effects on overall diet and obesity risk, but experimental studies are needed to confirm these observations," he says. At the beginning of the study, those who never ate breakfast were more likely to be girls and daily breakfast eaters were more likely to be boys. By the end of the study, however, the percentage of boys eating breakfast daily had dropped to the point where their rate matched that of girls.

"Although adolescents may think that skipping breakfast seems like a good way to save on calories, findings suggest the opposite."

Over the past two decades, rates of obesity have doubled in children and nearly tripled in adolescents. Fifty-seven percent of adolescent females and 33 percent of males frequently use unhealthy weight-control behaviors, and it is estimated that between 12 and 24 percent of children and adolescents regularly skip breakfast. The percentage of breakfast skippers also has been found to increase with age. Dianne Neumark-Sztainer, principal investigator of Project EAT, says this research confirms the importance of teaching adolescents to start the day off right by eating breakfast. "Although adolescents may think that skipping breakfast seems like a good way to save on calories, findings suggest the opposite," she says. "Eating a healthy breakfast may help adolescents avoid overeating later in the day and disrupt unhealthy eating patterns, such as not eating early in the day and eating a lot late in the evening." The study, "Breakfast Eating and Weight Change in a 5-Year Prospective Analysis of Adolescents: Project EAT," is published in the March edition of Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.