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experimental studies

Self-Herding At Breakfast

Just like Grandma served.

Just like Grandma served.

I’ve always believed that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Why? Because my mother told me so. Why did she believe it? Because her mother told her so. Who told her? Probably Edward Bernays, “the father of public relations.”

Is it true that breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Well, maybe not. If not, I’ve been self-herding for most of my life. I reached a decision (without much thinking) that breakfast was important. My only evidence was my mother’s advice.

Making the decision may have been a mistake. But, c’mon … she was my Mom. The more egregious mistake is that I never doubled back on the decision to see if anything had changed. I made the decision and never thought about it again. I self-herded into a set of fixed behaviors.

I also suffered from the confirmation bias. Researchers published articles from time to time confirming that breakfast is important. These studies confirmed what I already believed. Since the studies didn’t challenge my mental framework, I didn’t bother to check them closely. I just assumed that they were good science.

As it turns out, those studies were based on observations. Researchers observed people’s behavior and noted that people who ate breakfast were also generally healthier and less likely to be obese compared to people who didn’t. Clearly, breakfast is important.

But let’s think about this critically. There are at least three possible relationships between and among the variables:

  • Eating breakfast causes people to be healthier – breakfast causes health
  • Healthier people eat breakfast more than unhealthy people – health causes breakfast
  • Healthier people eat breakfast and also do other things that contribute to good health – hidden variable(s) lead to healthiness and also cause people to eat breakfast.

With observational studies, researchers can’t easily sort out what causes what.

So James Betts and his colleagues did an experimental study – as opposed to an observational study – on the relationship between breakfast and good health. (The original article is here. The popular press has also covered the story including the New York Times, Time magazine, and Outside magazine).

Betts’ research team randomly assigned people to one of two groups. One group had to eat breakfast every day; the other group was not allowed to do any such thing. This isolates the independent variable and allows us to establish causality.

The trial ran for six weeks. The result: nothing. The researchers found no major health or weight differences between the two groups.

But previous research had found a correlation between breakfast and good health. So what caused what? It was probably a cluster of hidden variables. Betts noted, for instance, “…the breakfast group was much more physically active than the fasting group, with significant differences particularly noted during light-intensity activities during the morning.”

So it may not be breakfast that creates healthier outcomes. It may be that breakfast eaters are also more physically active. Activity promotes wellness, not breakfast.

If that’s true, I’ve been self-herding for many years. I didn’t re-check my sources. If I had, I might have discovered that Edward Bernays launched a PR campaign in the 1920s to encourage people to eat a hearty breakfast, with bacon and eggs. Bernays was working for a client – Beech-Nut Packing Company – that sold pork products, including bacon. I suspect the campaign influenced my grandmother who, in turn, influenced my mother who, in turn, influenced me. The moral of the story: check your sources, re-check them periodically, and be suspicious of observational studies. And don’t believe everything that your mother tells you.

(By the way, I recently published two short articles about the effects of chocolate and sex on cognition. Both of these articles were based on observational studies. Caveat emptor).

Chocolate Brain

save the earth chocolateClose readers of this website will remember that my sister, Shelley, is addicted to chocolate. Perhaps it’s because of the bacteria in her microbiome. Perhaps it’s due to some weakness in her personality. Perhaps it’s not her fault; perhaps it is her fault. Mostly, I’ve written about the origins of her addiction. How did she come to be this way? (It’s a question that weighs heavily on a younger brother).

There’s another dimension that I’d like to focus on today: the outcome of her addiction. What are the results of being addicted to chocolate? As it happens, my sister is very smart. She’s also very focused and task oriented. She earned her Ph.D. in entomology when she was 25 and pregnant with her second child. Could chocolate be the cause?

I thought about this the other day when I browsed through the May issue of Appetite, a scientific journal reporting on the relationship between food and health. The tittle of the article pretty much tells the story: “Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study”.

The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study (MSLS) started in 1974 with more than 1,000 participants. Initially, the participants all resided near Syracuse, New York. The study tracks participants over time, taking detailed measurements of cardiovascular and cognitive health in “waves” usually at five-year intervals.

The initial waves of the study had little to do with diet and nothing to do with chocolate. In the sixth wave, researchers led by Georgina Crichton decided to look more closely at dietary variables. The researchers focused on chocolate because it’s rich in flavonoids and “The ability of flavonoid-rich foods to improve cognitive function has been demonstrated in both epidemiological studies … and clinical trials.” But the research record is mixed. As the authors point out, studies of “chronic” use of chocolate “…have failed to find any positive effects on cognition.”

So, does chocolate have long-term positive effects on cognition? The researchers gathered data on MSLS participants, aged 23 to 98. The selection process removed participants who suffered from dementia or had had severe strokes. The result was 968 participants who could be considered cognitively normal.

Using a questionnaire, the researcher asked participants about their dietary habits, including foods ranging from fish to vegetables to dairy to chocolate. The questionnaire didn’t measure the quantity of food that participants consumed. Rather it measured how often the participant ate the food – measured as the number of times per week. The researchers used a variety of tests to measure cognitive function.

And the results? Here’s the summary:

  • Women ate chocolate more frequently than men;
  • Those who ate chocolate consumed more calories overall “..but significantly less alcohol”.
  • “All cognitive scores were significantly higher in those who consumed chocolate at least once per week, than in those who never/rarely consumed chocolate.”
  • “Chocolate intake was significantly and positively associated with…” six different measures of cognitive function.

Seems pretty clear, eh? But this isn’t an experiment, so it’s difficult to say that chocolate caused the improved function. It could be that participants with better cognition simply chose to eat more chocolate. (Seems reasonable, doesn’t it?).

So the researchers delved a little deeper. They studied the cognitive assessments of participants who had taken part in earlier waves of the study. If cognition caused chocolate consumption (rather than the other way round), then people who eat more chocolate today should have had better cognitive scores in earlier waves of the study. That was not the case. This doesn’t necessarily prove that chocolate consumption causes better cognition. But we can probably reject the hypothesis that smarter people choose to eat more chocolate.

So what does this say about my sister? She’s still a pretty smart cookie. But she might be even smarter if she ate more chocolate. That’s a scary thought.

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