When it comes to school breakfasts, two is better than none, says a new report released Thursday in the journal Pediatric Obesity.
Researchers tracked nearly 600 middle-school students from fifth to seventh grade, looking to see if students ate no breakfast; ate breakfast at home or school; or ate both — and whether that affected obesity rates. The result: Weight gain among students who ate "double-breakfast" was no different than that seen among all other students. Meanwhile, the risk of obesity doubled among students who skipped breakfast or ate it inconsistently.
"It seems it's a bigger problem to have kids skipping breakfast than to have these kids eating two breakfasts," says Marlene Schwartz of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and one of the study's authors.
"This study ... debunks an important misconception that school breakfast contributes to childhood obesity," says Duke Storen from Share Our Strength, a national group that runs anti-hunger and nutrition programs for children.
While direct opposition to free school breakfast is unusual, says Storen, officials sometimes balk at implementing "alternative breakfast models" designed to encourage use of the program — such as offering breakfast in grab-and-go bags or in classrooms, rather than traditional sit-down meals in a cafeteria. That's a concern, say hunger advocates, because while eligibility rules for free and reduced-price breakfast are the same as for lunch, only about half as many children get subsidized breakfast as receive lunch, according to the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group.
Indeed, the study was inspired in part by real-world concerns that school breakfast programs might promote obesity, says Schwartz.
In 2012, the administration of New York City's then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg opposed offering breakfast in classrooms instead of school cafeterias, arguing that the change would exacerbate childhood obesity. A year later, an American Journal of Public Health study showed that, on average, kids eating two breakfasts in New York City schools consumed 95 more calories daily than did those eating one breakfast.
Researchers of the new study didn't examine why eating double breakfasts did not affect obesity, but skipping the meal did. But Schwartz has a few hypotheses. First, school breakfast is fairly healthful; "they weren't eating doughnuts or Denny's Grand Slam," she says.
Second, kids who skip breakfast — a habit that doubled in frequency between grades 5 and 7, according to the study — are likely to overeat later in the day. And, of course, just the fact that growing adolescents often need a lot of food to grow means that they can eat more without necessarily gaining weight.
The study also draws a direct line between school breakfast and fighting childhood hunger, underscoring the idea that malnourishment and obesity in the U.S. are not so much opposites as two sides of the same coin.
"The latest figures show that 15 million children live in food insecure households," says Heather Hardline-Grafton, a senior researcher at FRAC. "While obesity is a serious problem for many children in the United States, so, too, is food insecurity."
Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating, a New York Times best-seller, and a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. You can follow her on Twitter @tmmcmillan.