Researchers at Umea University in Sweden found that teens who reported eating no breakfast or only sweets were two-thirds more likely to develop a cluster of risk factors linked to heart disease and diabetes when they were in their 40s than their peers who ate more substantial morning meals.
"It may be that eating breakfast aids in keeping to a healthier diet the rest of the day," the study's lead author, Maria Wennberg, told Reuters Health in an email.
Kids who miss breakfast experience hunger surges and tend to overeat later in the day, Dr. David Ludwig, a pediatrics and nutrition researcher at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, said. He was not involved in the current study.
Wennberg and her colleagues reviewed data from 889 people in Lulea, Sweden. In 1981, when they were 16 years old, the participants completed questionnaires about what they ate for breakfast on a single day.
Researchers then examined them in 2008, when they were 43 years old, for metabolic syndrome, a collection of risk factors that can lead to heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
They found that 27% had developed signs of the syndrome, according to the study published online January 28 in Public Health Nutrition.
Moreover, those who reported missing breakfast or eating a poor-quality one as a teenager were 68 percent more likely to have metabolic syndrome in middle age.
When the researchers analyzed separate components of the syndrome, they found that obesity and high blood-sugar levels at age 43 were linked with poor breakfast habits at age 16.
About 35% of U.S. adults have metabolic syndrome, according to the American Heart Association. In addition to a large waistline and high blood sugar, components of the syndrome include high blood pressure and low "good" cholesterol.
Past studies found links between higher quality diets and healthier lifestyles, the authors write. Poor breakfast habits may therefore be part of an unhealthy lifestyle.
The authors noted the study's limitations, including that the 1981 questionnaire asked teens only about a single day's breakfast. They also did not know the participants' adult breakfast habits.
Wennberg called for more research on the link between adolescent breakfast habits and middle-age disease as well as for studies evaluating the benefits of school-breakfast programs "both because of effects on metabolic health and because of effects on academic performance."
"This may especially be of value in areas with socioeconomic disadvantage," she said.
Ludwig agreed, citing the benefits of a healthy breakfast on physical health as well as on thinking skills and academic performance. But he questioned the quality of the government-subsidized or free breakfasts that millions of American children currently receive at school.
"The rule is these breakfasts are cheap, low quality and of potentially marginal benefit," he told Reuters Health. "This is a tremendous missed opportunity."
An ideal breakfast would include protein, healthy fat and a source of carbohydrates like fruit or vegetables or minimally processed grain, he said.
The amount of money available for the federally-funded U.S. School Breakfast Program "is woefully inadequate," and "the nutritional standards are archaic," Ludwig said.
"In some cases, the schools have virtually outsourced the kitchen to the fast-food industry," he said.
He noted that the U.S. Senate this week sent to President Barack Obama a bill to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, by about $900 million a year, or roughly 1%. About half of food stamp recipients are children.
Publ Health Nutr 2014.