The Breakfast Blog
Are you bewildered by breakfast? We all know that it’s supposed to be the most important meal of the day, but there are so many pitfalls and so much contradictory advice that it’s often not easy to know what the best choices might be. Here are a few FAQs that come up in my clinic on a regular basis, so whatever your taste runs to in the morning, here’s how to make a suitably healthy choice that fits in with both your timeline and your taste preferences.
Why eat breakfast at all?
There are so many reasons, but one short and compelling answer is that you’re likely to remain slimmer if you do. It’s easy to assume that by skipping breakfast you can keep the calories down and that will help with weight management. Actually the reverse is true, because skipping breakfast generates a hormonal response that has a direct impact on your waistline. Ghrelin is the hormone that manages hunger and it’s programmed to increase before a meal and decrease after a meal. Studies have shown that people who miss breakfast eat more at both lunch and dinner than people who regularly eat breakfast, because the ghrelin levels remain unchecked.
But if I eat breakfast I’m usually hungry by 10am and have to eat again, which doesn’t happen if I don’t eat breakfast at all. Why is that?
If this is happening to you, then the chances are that your breakfast is high in sugar and/or refined carbohydrate (which the body treats as sugar) and probably lacks protein. This is the fast route to a blood sugar spike, as your body will burn through these pretty quickly and what goes up must come down, so the hormone insulin is generated to manage the situation and reduce blood sugar levels. When your blood sugar drops, stress hormones are released and it’s their job to redress the balance. One of the ways they do this is to send a message to the brain generating a powerful craving for sugar or carbohydrate, which is a feeling you’ll probably know all too well.
Typical sugary breakfasts include most of the popular breakfast cereals (see below), toast with jam, marmalade or honey, muffins, croissants, chopped fruit, fruit yoghurts and if you’re topping this off with a nice glass of orange juice, then you’re sending your sugar levels sky high and setting yourself up for problems later in the morning.
A breakfast that contains a healthy portion of protein and fibre is the way to maintain even blood sugar levels and help prevent the mid-morning munchies. Good sources of protein include eggs, sugar-free peanut or almond butter, almonds, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, kippers, smoked salmon or even bacon.
Which is the better option, toast or cereal?
Wholemeal toast with eggs, smoked salmon, sugar-free peanut or almond butter are all great options, as they provide the balance of protein and fibre you need to maintain blood sugar levels and to keep going throughout the morning. White bread, croissants, muffins, crumpets, jam, honey or marmalade are all highly refined and will trigger the blood sugar response, so are best avoided.
Cereals are a minefield for the unwary, as many popular breakfast cereals are shockingly high in added sugar and here are just a few examples.
|Cereal||Sugar content per average 50g serving|
|Crunchy Nut Cornflakes||7 teaspoons|
|Special K||5 teaspoons|
|Jordan’s Country Crisp||4 teaspoons|
|Dorset Cereal (Fruit, nuts & seeds)||4½ teaspoons|
You also have to bear in mind that the declared sugar on the label only refers to added sugar. If you take into account the fact that many cereals use refined grains, then your body will very quickly convert this refined carbohydrate into sugar, increasing blood sugar levels and generating the insulin response described above.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t have cereal if that’s what suits you in the morning, you just have to be a bit more vigilant about keeping an eye on the label. Firstly, check out the added sugar content – 4g of sugar equates roughly to a teaspoon, so you just need to do the maths to see the potential damage to your waistline. If you want to avoid falling into the refined carbohydrate trap, then check the label for fibre content. If there’s more than 5g of fibre per 50g serving then the cereal is likely to contain more whole-grains and fewer refined carbohydrates or sugars, so it’s probably a better bet. Lizi’s Original Granola is a good example of this and is one of the few cereal options I recommend to clients.
The other way to boost the healthy content of your cereal is to add some protein in the form of chopped nuts, pumpkin or sunflower seeds, as this will help to slow down the release of the carbohydrate in the body and keep your blood sugar stable. Studies have also shown that a high protein breakfast helps to reduce levels of the hormone ghrelin.
Is it okay to have a skinny muffin en route to work, if there’s no time for breakfast at home?
It’s not easy when you’re pushed for time, but a skinny muffin doesn’t limit the damage as you might expect. The problem with low-fat products is that manufacturers add sugar to compensate for the loss of flavour that comes with stripping out the fat. And despite the misleading name, eating fat will not make you fat. Sugar is the main culprit when it comes to weight gain, which is why it might alarm you to realise that the Starbucks skinny blueberry muffin contains a whopping 8½ teaspoons of sugar; that’s more than the classic blueberry muffin which has 7 teaspoons of sugar by comparison. The so-called skinny option isn’t going to help your waistline one bit. If your taste runs to muffins, then their Rise and Shine muffin is a better choice, as it’s far lower in sugar and contains good levels of fibre. Alternatively, go for a high protein option, such as the Great British Breakfast roll which includes bacon and egg, as that will keep you going far longer than a sugary muffin
Should I limit the amount of eggs I eat and is it best to have egg-white only?
Eggs have had a bit of a bad press over the years but they’re so full of nutrients that they’re practically a super-food, so eat and enjoy! There remains a lingering concern amongst the general public that eating eggs can increase your cholesterol levels but this is simply not the case. Numerous studies have concluded that dietary cholesterol does not impact levels of cholesterol in the body, so the fact that some foods such as eggs or shell fish contain cholesterol is a red herring and this should not discourage you from eating them.
Eggs are an excellent source of protein and the yolk is the most richly nutritious element so make sure you don’t miss out on that. Not only is it an excellent source of monounsaturated fats but it is rich in B vitamins, folate and selenium which play a key role in immune and reproductive health, as well as boosting energy levels.
Porridge is good though, isn’t it?
Porridge is excellent – it’s a great source of complex carbohydrate which will ensure sustained energy levels and it’s full of soluble fibre which helps to regulate cholesterol levels in the body. Of course if you’re ladling honey on top then that will make it a rather less excellent option. Honey is just sugar with another name, as is maple syrup or molasses and the impact on your blood sugar is exactly the same as if you had poured sugar directly onto your porridge.
You also need to be careful of those quick and easy porridge sachets that are flavoured with golden syrup or dried fruit, as these contain a minimum of 4 teaspoons of sugar per serving, undoing all the good work of choosing porridge in the first place.
If you want to optimise the health benefits of your porridge, then consider flavouring it with cinnamon, which animal studies have shown to have blood sugar balancing properties, or some fresh berries or chopped apple. Adding a tablespoon of pumpkin seeds or ground flax seed will provide a big protein boost and turn this into a winner of a breakfast which will keep you going all morning.
In short, if you remember the following 3 points, you won’t go too far wrong in your quest for a healthy breakfast:
- Having dessert for breakfast is not a good idea.
- Fibre is your friend, so opt for wholemeal toast or wholegrain cereals
- Protein is the silver bullet when it comes to sustained energy and reducing sugar or carb cravings.
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