Gill Stannard

Monday, March 03, 2008


Food, glorious food!
We're anxious to try it
Three banquets a day
Our favourite diet!
(Food Glorious Food)

The evidence for eating breakfast

While eating breakfast is plain commonsense for most people, medical research has a burning need to provide evidence in order to claim starting the day with a meal is in any way beneficial. There is a plethora of studies looking at both children and adults and the effects of eating or not eating breakfast. The evidence for eating breakfast being good for your wellbeing include:

Children - better performance in school such as improved concentration, memory, able to verbally recount what they have been taught, alertness and creativity. Kids who skipped breakfast were also almost twice as likely to be overweight.

Adults - also demonstrated the connection between forgoing breakfast and weight control by showing that the greater energy intake at the beginning of the day, the less likely to overeat later. A wholegrain cereal type of breakfast predicted better cardiovascular health in women and decreased mortality (in this case death from any cause) than for those who ate a refined cereal.

Different ways to break the fast

For those for who find it a struggle to eat in the morning– resist the cup of coffee and a cigarette to start the day and just try to eat a piece of two of fresh fruit. The fructose will slowly increase your blood sugar levels (a bit like turning the computer on), the fibre keeps the bowel and the heart happy, and the vitamins and minerals potentially not only give you energy but also keep all your body systems functioning.

Cereals and grains: Grabbing a box of cereal is a popular choice but also a minefield nutritionally. “High energy” and any mention of sport or athletes tend to mean the product is high in sugars and often salt. Unless you are running a marathon it is unlikely you need that kind of quick electrolyte and energy replacement. Also watch out for added colours and flavours. If a cereal needs to add vitamins back into the food it suggests that it has already been very refined.*

The best grain based breakfasts are ones where you can actually recognise plant foods – such as oats and other grains, nuts and seeds. But toasting them does tend to reduce the nutrients, oxidise oils and generally make them less digestible. Skip the toasted muesli or keep granola to just a sprinkle to add texture and flavour to its raw counterparts. Keep in mind that grains generally need cooking or soaking. The original Bircher muesli is a mix of grains, seeds and nuts soaked overnight in milk, water or juice. It is much easier and more enjoyable to eat than when it is eaten straight from the packet.

Cooked grains make a great breakfast – porridge (oatmeal) is traditionally made from rolled oats but any slow cooked grain can taste delicious. For example millet, buckwheat, cornmeal, amaranth or quinoa. I enjoy adding using equal quantities of cooked brown rice with rolled oats for a nuttier flavoured winter breakfast. If you need to sweeten it pull back on refined sugar and try a teaspoon of mineral rich maple syrup or rice malt instead.

Fruit is a great addition to a cereal-based breakfast. Fresh is best but when it is out of season use sulphur-free if choosing dried fruit. You can also dry your own fruit in an electric conventional oven (cut thinly, placed on racks, at a very low heat).

Bread based breakfasts: There is a huge nutritional difference between types of breads and the toppings you put on it. Toast is an easy and popular way to start the day, is relatively portable and quick. The heavier the bread feels, the denser and grainier it is generally means it is higher in fibre and more beneficial. Spongy white bread tends to be the most refined and quickly broken down by the body. While a GI rating on a commercial loaf might be useful (the higher the better), frequently the healthiest tends to come from specialised bakeries that offer wholegrain, sourdough or stone ground flours. Avoid bleached flour, bread improvers and other additives. A handy Scandinavian and Eastern European alternative is pumpernickel or other dark rye breads or crackers. Fat laden croissants are best for a special occasion only.

The more savoury, less sweet or salty your topping, generally the more nutritious the meal will be. Popular commercial toppings such as jam, Australia’s own iconic yeast spread and chocolate-based concoctions (no matter how many sports people tell us how good they are) give you a poorer nutritional start to the day than real fruits and vegetables. Try tahini and avocado, nut ‘butters’ (eg almond, cashew etc), banana, fresh tomatoes, grilled mushrooms or a boiled or poached egg on the best bread or toast you can find. Compare how you feel mid-morning after this kind of start to plain jam on white toast.

Eggs have been plagued with controversy for years. Cholesterol-wise conventional medicine has deemed it acceptable to have an egg a day (or up to 7 eggs a week) for most people. However frying your eggs or eating them more them 3 times a week appears to increase a woman’s chance of developing ovarian cancer (JAMA 254(3): pp.356-7, 1985]).

An egg-based breakfast is a great way to start the day if you need endurance; you are busy or just have a lot to achieve before there is time for lunch. A plain boiled egg is a like a protein pill, slowly releasing energy and nutrients over the next few hours. Remember it doesn’t always need to be on toast, served with (cancer causing) bacon or scrambled with cream to taste delicious.

Breakfasts from different cultures: Miso soup with a small serve of rice, some pickled fish or vegetables and a boiled egg, plain sheep’s milk yoghurt and a drizzle of honey, spiced rice and lentils, meat and grain based soups, cooked beans – are just a few of the healthiest breakfasts from around the world. It makes a bowl of cornflakes look very boring, doesn’t it?

Try to avoid:
Caffeine within 2 hours of a meal – if you are needing a quick hit try a small glass of pure juice and leave the tea or coffee til mid-morning.

Breakfast Bars: almost always baked, so the grains are difficult to digest and the nutrients compromised as well as high in sugars. If you want something sweet on the run try a handful or raw seeds and nuts with some fresh or (sulphur free dried) fruit or even a mashed banana on wholegrain bread.

“Energy drinks”: in this context energy is just another work for refined carbohydrates and sugars. A fresh vegetable juice is a better (and often tastier) choice.

Skipping breakfast: unless you want to not utilise your innate intelligence and creativity or gain weight.

Update: March 2009: Australian Lobby Group, "The Parents Jury" has published their list of the top 3 cereals with misleading health claims. This dubious honour goes to Nutri-Grain, Milo and Cocoa Bombs. All have unacceptably high levels of sugar, amongst other health concerns and are not deemed a suitable cereal for children to eat on a regular basis.

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