The Connection Between Eating Breakfast and Reducing Stroke Risk

As an electrophysiologist, one of my primary concerns when dealing with irregular heartbeats, also known as arrhythmias, is the prevention of stroke. Those with Atrial Fibrillation, or Afib, have a five-times higher risk of stroke than patients who do not have this common arrhythmia. Therefore, anything that increases the risk of heart disease or stroke is critically important both to my practice and to our patients.

To that end, a recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology took a deeper look into the effects of eating or skipping breakfast on stroke risk and heart disease more generally. The causal relationship between skipping breakfast every day and increased stroke risk, in particular, is startlingly strong. Some of the most interesting takeaways from the study1 include:

  • Those who always skipped breakfast were more likely to suffer from obesity and its related diseases. We know, from a great deal of research, that obesity is a leading risk factor for atrial fibrillation as well as a number of other cardiovascular diseases.
  • Study participants who never ate breakfast had an 87% higher chance of dying from cardiovascular disease than those who ate breakfast every day
  • Stunningly, those who missed breakfast each day had three times the stroke risk as those who ate breakfast each day

The study followed several thousand 65 to 75-year-old adults over about 17 years. The study accounted and controlled for many health and behavioral factors that could skew the results.

The takeaway here is that everything we do must be in moderation. For some of us, skipping breakfast is a result of our hectic and increasingly busy schedules. The stress and resultant lifestyle deficiencies that we experience because of these hectic days clearly may lead to serious adverse consequences. For others, who believe that skipping breakfast is essential to losing weight, they may actually be setting themselves up for the opposite effect. Those who do not eat breakfast have a higher risk of obesity, for a multitude of reasons, but they’re also setting themselves up for an increased risk of death longer-term. Interestingly not only does skipping breakfast cause an increase in cardiovascular risk, but the increased risk of death for any reason was 19% greater than those who ate breakfast every day.

Lastly, there’s a big caveat to everything we discussed above. WHAT we eat for breakfast also makes a difference. Eating breakfast to improve heart health doesn’t really make sense if it consists of only white breads or baked goods slathered with butters, jams and more. Juices are a leading culprit excess sugar intake as are coffees and teas, which are often dressed up with cream and a teaspoon (or four) of sugar.

The trick to beating cardiovascular disease – and this includes cardiac arrhythmias – is prevention. While it is gratifying to know that we can offer effective and safe treatments for debilitating and lifestyle altering arrhythmias, it is also saddening to see the number of people that require medical intervention for diseases and conditions that are perfectly preventable through lifestyle change.

For those of you wondering what you should eat for breakfast, consider eliminating many of the processed grains, juices and cereals that contain sugar and replace them with delicious alternatives such as whole fruit, black unsweetened coffee, herbal teas, avocado, poached eggs or even a nice veggie-filled omelet. The options are endless, if you break free from the notion that breakfast should consist of bread, butter, jam and juice.

1 Shuang Rong, Linda G. Snetselaar, Guifeng Xu, Yangbo Sun, Buyun Liu, Robert B. Wallace, Wei Bao. Association of Skipping Breakfast With Cardiovascular and All-Cause Mortality Journal of the American College of Cardiology Apr 2019, 73 (16) 2025-2032; DOI: 10.1016/j.jacc.2019.01.065

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