Mass General Researchers Find Genes that Shed Light on the Breakfast Skipping Conundrum

Bowl of cereal

Do you eat breakfast every day?

There are usually two camps of people: those who wake up starving in the morning and need breakfast to start their day and others who can’t imagine consuming anything but coffee or tea before lunch time.

Could there be a genetic component that explains why some people skip breakfast? Does missing the so-called “most important meal of the day” impact overall health?

We may want to believe that our habits develop out of our own free will, but many of them are actually coded into our genes. Our habits, in conjunction with our genes, can leave us at higher risk for certain health conditions, which is why researchers are looking to understand more about their implications.

Recent research has found food intake and its timing to be a risk factor for weight gain and chronic disease, but research explaining how genes can contribute to meal timing preferences is still emerging. To gain a deeper understanding, a Massachusetts General Hospital research team led by postdoctoral fellow Hassan S Dashti, PhD, RD, and senior author Richa Saxena, PhD, decided to look for genes that contribute to the preference of one of the most controversial meals: breakfast.

Breakfast preferences are not as simple as they seem

The researchers analyzed the genetic data of 193,860 individuals from the UK Biobank and found six regions within the genome that were associated with breakfast cereal skipping. These regions provided a window into breakfast skipping habits, and their locations provided interesting biological clues.

Three of the six regions were located next to genes that might be related to circadian rhythm, otherwise known as your biological clock. Dashti and his team found that those who were morning people are more likely to eat breakfast and that those who were evening people were more likely to skip breakfast.

The remaining regions have been previously linked to other traits, such as caffeine intake and metabolism, preference for carbohydrate intake, and schizophrenia risk. While it is possible to speculate why these connections have emerged, for example replacing skipping breakfast for coffee instead, the precise reason are still unclear, says Dashti, and more research will be needed to further untangle these relationships.

It is worth mentioning that in a previous study of early risers and night owls, evening people were at higher risk for schizophrenia.

How breakfast contributes to overall health

The researchers used genetics of breakfast cereal skipping to explore links with health, and found that skipping breakfast may lead to increased smoking, as well as higher risk for obesity and depression.

While skipping breakfast may put a person at higher risk for certain health conditions, it is important to note that breakfast skipping is only partially genetically determined. The rest is based on environmental factors such as age, work and social demands, and socioeconomic status.   

In the future, Dashti and collaborators aim to capture more detail on food choices by relying less on self-report and instead incorporating data from food purchases and smartphone applications and images. To do this, they hope to utilize the Mass General Choose Well, Eat Well program that monitors employee food choices using cafeteria purchases.

In the meantime, eating breakfast may not hurt, says Dashti.

“Breakfast tends to be a controversial meal. Our genetic findings point to genes related to the circadian clock that partly regulate preference for breakfast, and suggest that regular breakfast intake may be part of a healthy diet.”

-Hassan S Dashti, PhD, RD

About the Mass General Research Institute
Massachusetts General Hospital is home to the largest hospital-based research program in the United States. Our researchers work side-by-side with physicians to develop innovative new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.
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