Is it really the most important meal of the day, or have we been sold a lie?
Breakfast: most of us do it daily, chowing down on something quick and tasty before dashing out to work. We all know a good breakfast sets us up for whatever we need to face, don’t we? And our mothers tell us it is the most important meal of the day. But just how true is this mantra? Coined by a company called General Foods in 1944 to sell more cereal, the phrase has somehow seeped into the western world’s psyche. Back then, boxes of cereal, overprocessed and over-sugared, were considered to be health food thanks to clever marketing and a lack of alternative information.
But why are people still eating it today in their droves? “I see first-hand the depression, loss of productivity and chronic disease that stems from people going to work on a bowl of cereal, muffin, slice of toast or a low-fat yoghurt,” says health coach Suzie Glaskie (peppermintwellness. co.uk) “The standard carbohydrate bomb that we’ve all been brainwashed into eating for breakfast is actually the very last thing our body needs after fasting all night and just sends our blood sugar soaring. I’ve lost count of the number of adults I meet who launch into a day’s work on a bowl of Coco Pops, or a more ‘adult’ version of a breakfast cereal, or a bagel, a Danish pastry or a sugary latte.
“The leap in blood sugar is followed, as surely as night follows day, by an almighty crash, leaving us craving another sugar hit. This rollercoaster not only encourages the body to lay down fat but plays havoc with energy levels and brain function – not a recipe for success at work,” she says.
Of course, it’s easy to see why these unhealthy foods are being wolfed down every morning – they are convenient, portable and perfectly pitched at those who believe they don’t have time for breakfast. “Plus, of course, they’re pushed at us every which way we look,” says Suzy. “Most of us have grown up eating a breakfast of refined carbs and don’t know any different – even I didn’t until I retrained as a health coach. Until my early 40s, I’d have toast or cereal for breakfast and be starving by 9.30am, when I’d embark on the first of several rounds of snacks at my desk. And so many of us make the mistake of turning breakfast into a dessert. Often, this is done unwittingly and in an attempt to ‘eat healthily’ by choosing a breakfast bar or one of those healthy-looking low-fat yoghurts. Don’t be fooled! These are loaded with sugar and are akin to having an ice-cream sundae for breakfast.”
So what should we be eating? Before the breakfast industry was created, people generally ate whatever was left over from the previous day, which isn’t a bad shout providing it contains protein and some good fats. “Research shows that eating a proteinrich breakfast not only stabilises blood sugar levels but slashes cravings and cuts mindless junk-food eating throughout the day,” says Suzy. “It will help improve your cognition and reduce your risk of laying down fat on your belly.
“There’s also a knock-on effect on our mood, which takes a hit when we starve ourselves of protein. Here’s why: serotonin is a neurotransmitter that boosts our mood and curbs anxiety and irritability. But if we don’t eat enough protein, our body doesn’t have the tryptophan it needs to make serotonin.
“Remember that breakfast is just another meal so don’t be constrained by what’s deemed ‘suitable’. Bone broth with chicken and veg is perfect at any time of day. Black beans (which are both delicious and nutrient-packed) cooked with brown rice is a hearty, satisfying meal and popular in Latin American countries for breakfast. Eggs are super quick to cook and provide a fantastic start to your day. I often go for three eggs fried in ghee and a sprinkling of turmeric, with an avocado, drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and some leftover roasted sweet potato wedges. Smoked salmon and goat’s cheese are other delicious options.”
Then there is the school of thought that perhaps we are best skipping breakfast altogether. Controversial perhaps, but something that seems to be gaining scientific evidence. “I often tell my 17-year-old son as he leaves for school, with a toasted bagel in his hand, he’d be better off skipping breakfast altogether,” says Suzie. “The health benefits of extending our night-time fast, and pushing our first meal of the day to late morning, or even later, are extensive and very well-documented.”
It’s certainly an opinion shared by Professor Terence Kealey, author of the interestingly titled Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal (£10.50, Fourth Estate). In it, Prof Kealy says cortisol (our stress hormone) peaks first thing in the morning, which causes our body to be resistant to insulin, pushing levels up higher after breakfast than any other meal of the day. These rises take us further towards the metabolic condition of insulin resistance, which can lead to type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
Fasting diets like the 16:8, where you eat all of your day’s food in an eight-hour window, and fast for the other 16, are very popular. You usually achieve this by having your last meal of the day no later than 7pm, then skipping breakfast the following morning and fasting until around 11am. A recent study published in the journal Nutrition and Healthy Ageing found that not only does this eating pattern help obese people lose weight, but it helps to lower blood pressure, too.
It’s something that Max Lowery, personal trainer, online health coach (2mealday.com) and author of The 2 Meal Day (£9.79, Kyle Books), champions. “It causes your body to start using stored fat for fuel,” he explains, “so you’re not dependent on food for fuel. Instead of drip-feeding your body, you’ll start tapping into its stored energy – body fat. It resets your hormones so you learn what hunger actually is – simply having an empty stomach is not the same as hunger.
“Your insulin resistance will improve, your blood pressure will lower, as will your risk for heart disease. Your metabolic flexibility will get better and your blood lipid patterns, that is, the amount of fatty acids and cholesterol, will lower – elevated levels are a major risk factor for heart disease,” he says.
A word of warning, though – Max advises fasting isn’t for everyone. “Women’s bodies are more susceptible to physical stress, and so, if you are already stressed, fasting can put more strain on the body and knock hormones out of whack. If you’ve ever been told you have adrenal fatigue, for example, you shouldn’t fast. For anyone who has an eating disorder, is pregnant or is breastfeeding, fasting is best avoided too.”
So if you love salmon and steamed veggies for dinner, why not have them for breakfast? It’s liberating to be free of the dogma of everyone eating the same lownutrient foods each morning for no other reason than because some clever but outdated marketing told us to. But whether you mix it up, stick to a traditional egg-based meal, or skip it altogether to try fasting, one thing is clear: it’s time to step away from cereal.
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