10/09/2013 12:27 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Breakfast Champions or Chumps? How Breakfast Can Accelerate Aging

Breakfast is the only meal endowed with a health merit badge. The benefits of this first course of the day, and the hazards of skipping it, have become accepted truths. Despite thin evidence, by which I do not mean skinny people, many even claim that eating breakfast helps lose weight.

Googling "breakfast benefits" draws 127 million results. Only heretics would question this morning institution.

Well, the heretics may have it right. Mounting evidence indicates that it might not be a good idea to break our fast so quickly every day. Research has shown that our overall health and vulnerability to age-related diseases (cancers, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dementia and muscle loss) is related to something called Chronic Positive Energy Balance (CPEB).

I know it sounds strange. How could anything with "positive energy" in its name be bad?

This energy balance refers to our caloric savings account, which serves us best when periodically in the red and usually at zero. In other words, eating more than you burn is harmful to your health for reasons that go beyond gaining weight. Even those who reside at an ideal weight can profit from periodic caloric restriction.

Why would this be?

We are the evolutionary offspring of individuals who demonstrated superior physical and mental abilities under conditions of limited food supply. Energy expenditure (hunting and gathering) was high and energy intake relatively low and intermittent. This is what we're wired for and the circumstances under which we function best.

A growing body of research demonstrates that the stress of fasting triggers a cascade of adaptive responses that slows the aging process. The concept of beneficial stress is known as hormesis, an adaptive response of cells and organisms to a moderate (usually intermittent) stressor. This is the biological equivalent of Nietzsche's statement "that which does not kill me makes me stronger."

Additional examples of hormesis include the other two pillars of health, exercise and exposures to low doses of certain phytochemicals (eating fruits and vegetables). Recent research has revealed that cells increase their production of protective and restorative proteins, growth factors, and antioxidant enzymes when stressed in these ways.

A remarkable example of the positive effects of even short-term caloric restriction was illustrated in a study of healthy elderly subjects. After three months on a diet with a 30 percent reduction of caloric intake from their usual consumption participants had a significant improvement in memory function. This correlated with improved insulin sensitivity and decreased inflammation, two things that generally worsen with age.

So, back to breakfast. An easy way to prolong the overnight fast is to skip this meal. Several studies have documented the positive effects of such a relatively short fast.

A particularly dramatic demonstration of the power of this kind of fasting focused more on feeding time than caloric content. Researchers out of the University of California and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies fed mice either ad lib (can eat throughout the 24 hour day) or time-restricted feeding (tRF) where they only have an eight-hour feeding window per day. Both groups were intentionally given a fatty diet in an attempt to test whether obesity and metabolic diseases result from a high-fat diet or disruption of metabolic cycles.

Keep in mind that an eight-hour feeding window is the equivalent of skipping breakfast and eating between 12 p.m. and 8 p.m.

The tRF mice received the same total calories per day as the ad lib mice. The ad lib eaters became obese and lost insulin sensitivity. The tRF group remained normal weight and improved both nutrient utilization and energy expenditure.

This suggests the new maxim, "You are when you eat."

We inhabit a culture filled with traditions that have more to do with the industrial revolution and factory operation than human biology. Nowhere is this more apparent than in our eating. Our biology is not designed for three meals a day. There is nothing sensical about what constitutes breakfast, lunch or dinner food. Most importantly, our health suffers when we blindly consume the menu society serves us. We are only beginning to appreciate that meal timing and frequency are as important as what we eat.

A note of caution: Before you rush into a fasting program, consult a physician. Those who are training for an athletic event, are pregnant, diabetic or hypoglycemic, or have an eating disorder should avoid caloric restriction of this kind.

For more by Paul Spector, M.D., click here.

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