Government Nutritionists Wrong… Again

Add it to the list of things that the government got wrong when it comes to nutrition: skipping breakfast may not make you fat. It turns out this apparent truism isn’t so true and the idea has only been in circulation for the last five years or so:

The notion that skipping breakfast might cause weight gain entered the Dietary Guidelines in 2010, during one of the reviews conducted every five years by experts to update its findings… [They] collected research on skipping breakfast. Some of it did, indeed, suggest that breakfast skippers may be more likely to gain weight.

But the evidence the experts on the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee relied on were observational. As Peter Whoriskey commented, “observational studies in nutrition are generally cheaper and easier to conduct. But they can suffer from weaknesses that can lead scientists astray.” And astray they went. When the Advisory Committee decided to enshrine their “breakfast-weight hypothesis” into the Dietary Guidelines, they cited only one randomized controlled trial, which found “no relationship with breakfast alone” and weight gain.

Last year, however, a team of researchers from Columbia University did a controlled trial to examine this breakfast hypothesis. They divided a large number of people into “oatmeal breakfast,” “frosted corn flakes breakfast,” and “no breakfast” groups. At the end of the trial they found that the breakfast-skippers lost more weight than the other groups.

It’s worth noting, however, that the “no-breakfast” group had slightly higher LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol. So, it’s a bit of a tossup on how healthy it is to skip breakfast or eat breakfast. Likely, it has a lot to do with a person’s individual makeup and the rest of one’s diet and fitness.

Yet, they decided to canonize this questionable hypothesis in the guidelines, taking from the realm of possibly good advice to gospel. It’s not so much that the government got it wrong, it’s that they took a hypothesis that was up in the air—that was going through the proper scientific examination-testing-refutation-clarification process—and they brought down the gavel and decided on a position. I call this bureaucratization of knowledge, but Whoriskey puts it this way:

A closer look at the way that government nutritionists adopted the breakfast warning for the Dietary Guidelines shows how loose scientific guesses — possibly right, possibly wrong — can be elevated into hard-and-fast federal nutrition rules that are broadcast throughout the United States.

Is this sort of invalidation of government nutrition embarrassing? Maybe. But more importantly, it’s affecting the way Americans eat and impacting our health, perhaps even contributing to some of the “epidemic” health problems for which they keep demanding more money to solve. They were wrong about dietary cholesterol, still wrong about saturated fat, still wrong about sodium (even though their own researchers say they’re wrong), and wrong when they made the food pyramid. Perhaps it’s time we fired our government nutritionists. After all, they don’t seem to be very good at the job.