SHOULD you really eat breakfast like a king? Can a smoothie ever be enough?
And why do you get so hungry after eating a bowl of supposedly filling porridge? With so many myths surrounding the first meal of the day, it's no wonder we don't know whether it's okay to grab a piece of toast as we're running out the door, or if we should be rising early to whip up a plate of bacon and eggs.
The nutritionist Ian Marber thinks we should ditch the typical breakfast — slices of toast and bowls of cereal. “Complex carbohydrates are converted from food to glucose slowly, which is great,” he says. “But because complex carbs have an inferior alternative in simple carbs — white bread, sugar — I feel we've elevated complex carbs too much.
These are good, but they're not that good.”
Which explains why even a bowl of porridge or a slice of brown toast just isn't enough to keep hunger at bay and energylevels up until lunch.
What to eat
Marber recommends a mix of carbs and protein instead, and suggests simple ways to transform your usual breakfast (see panel). “Protein is converted to glucose very slowly, which means your cells aren't flooded with more glucose than they can cope with,” he explains. Keeping blood-sugar levels steady means energy levels are kept steadier for longer, and that mid morning sluggish feeling can be held off.
So poached egg (protein) on wholemeal toast (complex carbs) is ideal. Great, if you've got 15 minutes to dedicate to cooking first thing. But for so many of us, every morning minute is precious, and we'd rather forfeit a decent breakfast to spend that quarterof-an-hour in bed, or to get to work earlier. No matter, says Marber, just change the way you think about cooking. “You could scramble an egg in two minutes and eat it straight from the pan, then have an oatcake on the way out the door. It doesn't have to be beautiful.”
Be flexible about what you consider breakfast food, too. “You could eat seabass with cornflakes to the same effect, if you were so inclined,” says Marber. And don't fret about eating a different breakfast every day, so long as you have a varied diet for lunch and dinner.
In short, take as many shortcuts as you need, if it means you'll eat the allimportant protein/carb mix each morning. There's just one more thing you should know before you can go and make the perfect energy-boosting breakfast, though: the difference between complete and incomplete proteins. Meat, eggs, fish, tofu, milk and cheese are complete, while oats, nuts and seeds, rye, beans and the like are incomplete.
“You should eat complete proteins with each meal,” explains Marber. But this doesn't mean adding fish or cheese to everything, rather that incomplete proteins shouldn't be eaten alone. Instead, add another, different incomplete protein to the meal — one slice of toast with hummus, the other with peanut butter, for instance — and the problem is solved. It's a rule vegetarians especially should take note of.
When to eat
Should you eat as soon as you get up, or go without for as long as possible? And what if you can't face food first thing? Whatever you do, Marber says, just make sure you eat something within half-an-hour of getting up, “even if it's just half an apple and two brazil nuts, representing your carbs and protein”.
Eat a second, larger breakfast later. This two-breakfast method might be the solution if you find yourself getting hungry mid-morning, too — one when you get up, and a second when you get to work, perhaps. “I favour eating little and often,” Marber says.
“Better that than trying to fit one big morning meal in,” he adds. “You know the old adage, ‘Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper', that's because of the idea that you've simply got a long time to burn off a lot of energy. But your cells, when they get flooded with glucose, don't go, ‘Ah, it's breakfast, we'll save some of this for later on today', they just coldheartedly store what they need to store. If you overeat, it just gets stored away.”
Having two breakfasts, or one plus a couple of protein/carb snacks throughout the morning, is a sure-fire way to keep your energy levels steady. But it's important for mood, too. “If you consider a child — when they get grumpy or moody in the middle of the morning, you wouldn't think, ‘Are they worried about something?',” Marber says. “You'd think they haven't eaten. But with adults, we try to power through. And that's the wrong approach.”
From a psychological perspective, hunger puts a huge strain on us. We beat ourselves up for wanting food outside of set mealtimes. Marber believes this results in a “feast-or-famine, boom-or-bust way of eating”, which only leads to feeling miserable.
Mood can be affected by the things you put in your mouth, too. Louise Chunn, the editor of Psychologies magazine, says: “Eating the right breakfast does more than just boost your energy, it has psychological ramifications, too, for your mood, and for your attitude to healthy food for the rest of the day.”
“Nothing works straight away,” says Marber, “but things that change your mood — as in, if you have it for breakfast, you can expect to feel slightly different — are too much carbs, refined sugar and caffeine. These affect your glucose levels indirectly through the action of adrenaline — caffeine mimics the effects of stress, for example — and they change your mood and behaviour, at the time and afterwards.”
After forcing your glucose levels to rocket rapidly, your morning coffee and those sugar-laced cereals soon make your bloodsugar levels crash, leaving you with cravings for more caffeine, more sugar and more simple carbs. And so the cycle goes on and on and on.
Break the cycle
A decent breakfast can break this negative cycle. The body is left satisfied until lunchtime, or until the next protein/carb snack. And the mind is set up differently too. Starting the day with a healthy meal means we're more likely to eat well for the rest of the day, says Zoe Harcombe, author of The Obesity Epidemic (zoeharcombe.com).
And on the flipside, an unhealthy, or “bad”, breakfast makes us more likely to eat junk. “We all have this good-and-bad-day mentality,” she says. “If you say you're only going to have porridge for breakfast and you end up having porridge and a croissant, you think, ‘I've ruined it now'. So, today might as well be a bad day, and you'll eat badly again until the next morning.”
Marber agrees, and suggests the effect is even worse at weekends — have a greasy fryup first thing on Saturday morning, and you probably won't eat properly until Monday morning. And as weekends make up a pretty decent chunk of our lives, that's a lot of time to spend eating badly.
So, even if you've never bothered slotting breakfast into your routine before, or you're an out-the-door-with-a-slice-of-toast type eater, perhaps it's time to reconsider your morning meal. Because if slapping a layer of salmon pate, or adding a sprinkle of seeds, is all it takes to make your day easier, then surely it's worth a try.