Skipping breakfast may increase heart attack risk

Men who skip breakfast regularly have a higher risk of heart attack than those who do eat the meal, a new study suggests.

More evidence for adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day

Men who regularly skip breakfast have a higher risk of heart attack than those who do eat the meal, a new study suggests.

Knowing that regularly skipping breakfast is linked to heart risk factors such as obesity, high blood pressure and high cholesterol, researchers in the U.S. set out to see if it increases the chances of having a heart attack over time.

It's not clear whether it's the timing or content of breakfast that could help protect against health problems. (Justin Sullivan/Getty )

"There is potential that the old adage that breakfast is the most important meal of the day may hold true because we also examined other meals, such as lunch and dinner and snacking times, and breakfast was the only meal that we saw an association," said the study's lead author, Leah Cahill, a Canadian postdoctoral research fellow in nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Cahill's team analyzed food questionnaire data in 1992 and then tracked health outcomes for 16 years on 26,902 male health professionals in the U.S. aged 45 to 82. About 13 per cent said they regularly skipped breakfast.

Men who skipped breakfast had a 27 per cent higher risk of coronary heart disease compared with men who did not, the researchers said in Monday's issue of the journal Circulation.

The increased risk is not exceptionally high. But since heart attack is such as common cause of death and disease, Cahill said that if everyone ate breakfast regularly then it could have a positive impact on public health.

During the study, 1,572 of the men had a first cardiac event such as a heart attack.

Cahill said the association between skipping breakfast and heart disease held up in their model even after accounting for the fact that men who said they did not eat breakfast were also more likely to smoke, drink and to be less physically active than those who did eat the morning meal.

In sleep, the body enters a protective mode — releasing insulin and cholesterol and increasing its blood pressure, Cahill said. If the fast isn't broken in the morning, it could, over years, put a strain on the body that potentially leads to heart disease, she speculated.

Eating habits

"We don't know whether it's the timing or content of breakfast that's important. It's probably both," said Andrew Odegaard, a University of Minnesota researcher who has studied a link between skipping breakfast and health problems like obesity and high blood pressure.

"Generally, people who eat breakfast tend to eat a healthier diet," he added.

The researchers only asked about regular eating habits so they could not estimate the risk associated with skipping breakfast a couple of days a week.

Cahill, who is also a registered dietitian, supports the Canada Food Guide's recommendation to have breakfast every day, which she said is not present in the U.S. version.

She favours a bowl of whole-grain cereal for breakfast with chopped nuts and fruit with varying types of milk and yogurt.

Despite the nutritional benefits, 10 per cent of Canadians said they had not eaten breakfast, according to the 2004 Canadian Community Health Survey.

The study was funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and a Canadian Institutes of Health Research Postdoctoral Fellowship to Cahill.

With files from CBC's Kas Roussy and The Associated Press