Adolescents and young adults who eat breakfast are less likely to become overweight than those who skip the meal, a new study shows. They also have better overall diets, and are much more physically active.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis surveyed a racially and economically diverse sample of 2,216 boys and girls enrolled in 31 public schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Five years later the subjects were resurveyed via mail to assess changes in eating patterns and weight status. At the start of the study, those who ate breakfast on a consistent basis had an average BMI of 21.7, compared with 23.4 for those who never ate breakfast. Five years later, the same pattern held, even after controlling for age, sex, race, socioeconomic status, alcohol consumption, and smoking.

The researchers estimate that 12%-34% of the nation’s teenagers skip breakfast, with the proportion increasing by age.

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“We submit that breakfast habits may be important markers of an overall healthful lifestyle pattern in youth and that frequent breakfast consumption may impart important weight-gain prevention effects,” the researchers conclude (Pediatrics. 2008; 121:e638-e645).