DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I don't know about you but I eat breakfast every morning - either an egg or maybe cereal before going into the studio. At 4:30 in the morning, mostly it's hunger but there is that advice about breakfast being healthy. Well, now that advice seems even more solid. NPR's Allison Aubrey has seen a new study published in the journal Circulation.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: It's likely an understatement to say that most of us are creatures of habit and one daily habit for Randy Mateka(ph) is, you guessed it, breakfast.

RANDY MATEKA: I usually every morning eat a yogurt and a banana.

AUBREY: I caught up with Mateka as he and a few coworkers made their way from a neighborhood breakfast shop here in D.C., cups of coffee still in hand. So this is a habit you've got.

MATEKA: Yes. You know, I definitely do it every morning.

AUBREY: Now, breakfast has long gotten a good rap for everything from improving focus to losing weight. And ever since the 1960s when researchers in Alameda County, California linked eating breakfast - along with other healthy habits - to a longer lifespan, there's been a societal push towards breaking the fast.

ERIC RIMM: Yes. It's such a - it's really one of the simplest lifestyle changes we can make.

AUBREY: That's Eric Rimm of the Harvard School of Public Health. Yet, he says, not everyone has gotten on board.

RIMM: We still see that 15 to 20 percent of the U.S. population does not eat breakfast in the morning. And to me that's a lot.

AUBREY: So what's the possible downside of skipping breakfast? Well, prior research suggests it's harder to lose weight and keep it off if you don't eat a morning meal. And Rimm was curious about a possible influence on heart health. So as part of a large, long-term study evaluating the effect of diet on cardiovascular health, he and his colleagues kept track of the breakfast habits of nearly 27,000 men and followed up to see who among them had heart attacks.

RIMM: We found that men who skipped breakfast had a 27 percent higher risk of having a heart attack, over the 16 years of the study.

AUBREY: It sounds like a pretty good reason to eat breakfast, right? But wait a second. Is this a real biological phenomenon or is it just that people who tend to eat breakfast also tend to have lots of other good habits? They tend to smoke less and exercise more. Maybe that's what explains the benefits. Researcher Eric Rimm says he and his colleagues did take into account the fact that the habits of the non-breakfast eaters in their study were different. But he says this did not negate the benefits.

RIMM: It was somewhat surprising to us that even after we statistically account for differences in diet and smoking patterns and exercise patterns, even after accounting for all of that, you still see that there's the elevated risk of heart attack.

AUBREY: And interestingly, men who ate late at night also had a significantly higher risk of heart attack. So what's going on here? One possibility is that the timing of meals does matter. Researchers who study circadian rhythms say since eating helps to reset our internal clocks, eating in the morning may help keep our bodies and metabolisms on track.

For now there's no way to establish a clear cause and effect here and certainly there are plenty of healthy people out there who don't eat a meal right after waking up. Take, for instance, dietician Rachel Johnson of the University of Vermont.

RACHEL JOHNSON: I don't tend to wake up real hungry and so I generally wait until I'm hungry.

AUBREY: Usually this means a mid- to late-morning meal. Johnson says while there is a whole body of evidence pointing towards the benefits of breakfast, her advice is this: Don't force it.

JOHNSON: If you're not a breakfast eater, don't just add the calories in breakfast on top of what you're currently doing and expect that you're going to be sort of miraculously healthy.

AUBREY: Johnson says when it comes to eating in the morning, let hunger pangs - not the clock - be your guide. Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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