Nutrition science is sometimes inconclusive, and it’s difficult to sort the hype on cereals and other breakfast staples from sound dietary advice when research is partly funded by cereal makers.
These are some points raised by a small study on 50 women that started in 2013, where coauthor and Vanderbilt University associate professor David Schlundt cited the weight loss advice often slapped on the popular breakfast products.
‘White Hat’ Bias In Breakfast Studies
“That was the little piece they put on the cereal box,” Schlundt said in an AP report, referring to the weight-loss references found on cereal cartons, including Special K’s campaign beginning in the 1990s.
The study actually found that regular breakfast eaters who began skipping the first meal of the day lose even more weight than those who stuck with the routine.
Probing the idea of breakfast as a weight loss tool, the researchers reviewed dozens of studies that examine the exact same premise and concluded that popular opinion actually outweighed scientific proof. Studies, they noted, typically used language for indicating breakfast as a weight influence, despite findings not establishing a cause and effect.
“It goes back to the idea that correlation doesn’t equal causation,” study author and University of Alabama nutrition scientist Andrew Brown said, noting that heavier individuals in their research potentially skipped breakfast with the hope of shedding the extra pounds.
Blame it on “white hat” bias. There’s the default advice that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and when citing past studies, researchers tended to shape inconclusive outcomes in a way that favors breakfast, Brown explained. He added that “breakfast” here could mean yogurt or an egg sandwich.
Recently, Public Health England warned that children are packing in too much sugar at breakfast that half their daily recommended intake has already been consumed before school. The agency mentioned sugar-laden cereals, juices, and sweet spread for the trend, which it said could all damage health.
Nutrition Science: Intricacies And Limits
The general understanding of what could be healthy changes over time. Dietary recommendations then follow — one that links breakfast to weight control, inserted back in 2010, is for instance no longer part of the guidelines.
On that year, the U.S. government deemed breakfast a step in weight management. It mentioned 15 studies to back the recommendation. Five of those cited funding from Kellogg or General Mills, and three looked at cereal in particular.
The government, in its update in 2015, no longer touted breakfast for weight loss and said it instead decided to look at broader diet patterns.
Disclosures on study funding became standard only fairly recently, making it unclear how much of the existing literature was funded by breakfast food manufacturers. A 1992 study highlighted on Special K boxes, for once, does not list its funding source. Kellogg paid for it, Schlundt said.
Even with disclosure, not all studies escape criticism. Louisiana State University professor Carol O’Neil wrote back in 2011 to her co-author about a Kellogg-funded piece that the paper is “not good” and beset with major structural issues that “cannot be fixed.” They desired to withdraw it from submission but felt they could not because the cereal company expected publication.
The paper, eventually coming out in 2013, did not see a link between cereal intake in Mexican-American kids and improved weight but found one between the breakfast favorite and greater nutrient intake. Its conclusion: nourishing breakfasts, cereals included, should be encouraged.
O’Neil did not respond to request for comment from AP.
Health law and policy expert Timothy Caulfield, however, said that nutrition advice should not be discarded easily just because it fails to provide precise evidence. He said the field is beset with uncertainties, and experts offer advice based on the best available information out there.