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This Eating Habit May Harm Cognitive Function, New Study Says

Don't miss out on the first meal of the day.
FACT CHECKED BY Olivia Tarantino

The old saying tells us that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and it turns out that tidbit of food-related wisdom could be true. That's because a new study has found that skipping breakfast could seriously harm your cognitive function.

The results were reported in a paper by Dr. Changzheng Yuan and Dr. Dongmei Yu of Zhejiang University, which was published in Life Metabolism. The findings were based on a study that involved 3,342 participants from the China Nutrition Health Survey (CHNS) public database. All were men with a mean age of 62 years old. The data focused on the eating habits of the participants—specifically when they were eating and what meals they tended to skip—while also conducting phone-based tests related to cognitive functions such as recall, counting, and basic math.

While noting various lifestyle and health factors might affect the outcomes, the researchers found that eating meals over an evenly-distributed schedule was best for cognitive health. On the other hand, skipping breakfast increased the risk of harm to cognitive function.

eating cereal

"This study is no surprise and makes complete sense, mostly because it coincides with similar studies that suggest the same results for children, adolescence, and young adults who skip meals," Kiran Campbell, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist, tells Eat This, Not That!

Campbell notes that "skipping breakfast, no matter the reason, ends up being entirely counterproductive in the end," saying, "Whether you are in a rush, don't know what to eat, or are just not hungry at the moment, skipping breakfast is a bad idea. That being said, Campbell notes that "eating a poor-quality breakfast consisting of only simple sugars (such as a candy bar) can have a negative impact on cognitive function."

Explaining that "our bodies rely on glucose as fuel to keep our brain functioning at an optimal level," Campbell says that "if your first meal of the day is skipped altogether, you are essentially depriving your body and brain of the fuel it needs to get going and sustain yourself until you do decide to eat."

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As for eating on a more evenly distributed schedule, Campbell says, "I instruct patients to go no longer than 4 to 5 hours without eating during waking hours. This is to not only prevent the decline in cognitive function and thinking skills but to also maintain proper blood sugar levels and body weight over time."

Indeed, beyond the benefits to cognitive function, Campbell points out that "skipping meals has negative effects on other areas in addition to cognitive decline." She tells Eat This, Not That!, "Studies indicate that skipping meals may be linked to weight gain and increased risk for metabolic diseases, CVD risk, hypertension, insulin resistance, and elevated fasting lipid concentrations."

That's why "your goal should be to start the day right with the nutrients your body and mind need to function properly," and, as Campbell noted previously, "make sure you refuel every 4 to 5 hours to continue the process."

Desirée O
Desirée O is a freelance writer who covers lifestyle, food, and nutrition news among other topics. Read more about Desirée