- A study found that skipping meals may be linked to premature death.
- Researchers found that skipping breakfast is linked to an “increased risk of cardiovascular disease mortality.”
- A dietician weighs in on the findings and limitations of the study.
We’ve heard for years that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But, it actually might be even more important than previously thought, according to a study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which examined the effects of skipping meals and meal frequency as related to mortality and heart health.
The study, which was published in August of this year, sought to find out if eating behaviors like meal frequency, meal skipping, and time between meals were associated with all-cause and cardiovascular disease (CVD) mortality.
The study consisted of 24,011 adults 40 years or older who participated from 1999 to 2014. Researchers looked at various eating behaviors of participants who self-reported their eating habits every 24 hours. Causes of death were tracked via death records through December 31, 2015.
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After examining participants throughout the years, researchers found that certain eating behaviors were in fact linked to higher rates of premature death. Eating only one meal per day was associated with an increased risk of all-cause and CVD mortality while skipping breakfast was linked to an increased risk of CVD mortality, and skipping lunch or dinner was linked to an increased risk of all-cause mortality. Lastly, the study found that having meals too closely together (less than four and half hours apart) was also linked to all-cause premature death.
The study noted that according to a US National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), 40% of Americans skipped meals and at least one in five ages 20 to 74 skipped breakfast or lunch—reiterating the importance of the research.
So, what does this mean for the average person? “At the end of the day what matters is that an individual can meet their nutritional needs for optimal health,” explains Keri Gans, R.D.N., author The Small Change Diet and podcast host of The Keri Report. “If by eliminating meals they are missing out on important nutrients their body needs, then long term that can be detrimental to their health,” leading to a “higher risk for certain cancers and heart disease,” she says.
While the study certainly has its limitations, Gans says that “breakfast typically is a good vehicle for nutrients associated with a decrease in cardiovascular risk, such as fiber and vitamins C, E, and D.” For example: “Oatmeal made with milk, topped with strawberries and almonds, would be an ideal breakfast for heart protection. Other potential risks for skipping breakfast may include weight gain and osteoporosis—however research is not conclusive,” she warns.
Researchers noted similar possible reasons for why skipping meals may lead to their findings, including unhealthy dietary and lifestyle habits, overeating, and eating higher-calorie meals.
While this study was large and comprehensive in many ways, there are also many limitations. It was mostly based on a 24-hour, self-reported dietary recall, “which may not always be the best method for dietary assessment,” explains Gans. “The participants may not accurately recall what they ate or honestly report it leading to the potential of misinformation.” Researchers noted that it was impossible to consider the role of sleep in the relationship between food and mortality, as well as a host of other unmeasured factors (like preexisting conditions).
The bottom line is that while these findings about the relationships between meal skipping and mortality are important, there are a lot more factors that go into premature death. Consuming adequate nutrients—including those found in fruits and vegetables—is key for maintaining overall health and mitigating the risk of potential life-shortening disease.
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Shannen Zitz is a Freelance Editorial Assistant at Prevention who recently graduated from the State University of New York at Cortland with an English degree. She loves all things fashion, beauty, and wellness. If she’s not reading or writing, you can probably find her frequenting the skincare and makeup forums on Reddit.