By Miriam Cohen
Breakfast is king – or pauper, depending on who you talk to. There was a time when most mothers believed in breakfast as the best way to start the day. Most parents still do for schoolgoing children. They have a point.
My mother was one of those. She was a fan of US nutrition specialist Adele Davis way back in the 1960s. Davis regularly exhorted the public to “eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper”. She was controversial, as nutrition science is to this day. Some considered her a “pioneering diet guru”, others a “food faddist”.
But breakfast as the monarch of meals remains steeped in marketing as much as in science. It’s a perennial debate in scientific circles globally.
The definition of the word breakfast is obvious: breaking a “fast”. Commonly, it’s about abstaining from food after the last meal at night until the first meal the next morning. That makes sense for schoolchildren and adults with regular, nine-to-five working days. It falls apart for night owls, shift workers and others with irregular working and waking hours.
Claims for breakfast
Among arguments for breakfast as king are that:
- Breakfast provides important nutrients to start the day energized and nourished for work in body and mind;
- Best breakfast foods are rich in key nutrients such as folate, calcium, iron, B vitamins and fiber. Chosen correctly, they also provide much of the day’s total nutrient intake;
- It “kickstarts” your metabolism. This helps you burn calories throughout the day. It also gives you energy and focus for at work or at school;
- Research links eating breakfast to good health. Benefits better memory and concentration, lower levels of so-called “bad” LDL cholesterol, and lower risk of type 2 diabetes (T2D), heart disease and overweight.
Arguments against the importance of breakfast:
- Skipping breakfast is not proven harmful;
- Historically, breakfast had no particular importance ascribed to it. Research shows that skipping breakfast does not lead to weight gain, health issues, or underperformance in body or mind.
One problem with research supporting or knocking breakfast is that most of it is based on observational, aka associational, studies. Unlike RCTs, (randomised controlled trials), the so-called “gold standard of modern medical research, associational studies cannot prove cause and effect. That’s worth an article all on its own. However, there are cases where associational studies can be stronger than RCTs.
Which brings us back to the good, bad and ugly of breakfast foods,
Breakfast, to many people, has become synonymous with cereals. That’s just marketing hype. It has produced the plethora ultra-processed breakfast products weighing down supermarket shelves. Many are so far from their natural state that they barely deserve to be called “food”. Their negative effects on health in body and mind have led some call them “cereal killers“.
Most important, say nutrition specialists, is to eat nutrient-dense food, what they now call “real” food. By that ,they mean minimally processed, real food that is as close to its natural, nutrient-dense state as possible. That advice applies no matter your age.
The benefits are legion and include including reduced risk of obesity , heart disease and T2D. And yes, it is possible to reverse all symptoms of T2D completely and to lose weight quickly and safely without medication. Dietary intervention is proving to be key.
What to eat for breakfast
Here is my list of good breakfast foods, with links to my favourite sources:
Cereals are bottom of my list, for the aforementioned reasons. Except perhaps for oats, though not all oats are not equal. Minimally processed, “rolled” or “steel” oats are a good choice. Instant oats are not.
I’m a big fan of animal foods for breakfast, a traditional English breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, tomato and mushrooms. No muffins or toast as these are not nutrient-dense foods.
If your religion prohibits pork, no problem. Beef sausages are a good choice or even a solid piece of rump steak, the more marbled the better. And remember what your parents told you about fish as “brain food”.
The so-called “low-carb” diet movement has revolutionised dietary advice. It puts paid to worries about how many calories – or not – to consume at breakfast. It has also restored eggs to their former nutrition glory. Eggs are a perfect food, high in protein and good fats and very low in carbohydrate. Avocado is another good breakfast food. I add it to all meals whenever possible.
Snack food power
If you regularly skip breakfast, snack foods come into their own. Cheese and nuts are my staples. I favour artisanal cheeses.
In the US, my favourite snack – and breakfast – food – is 100% grass-fed wagyu beef. Wagyu literally means Japanese beef. As BBC Food describes wagyu as “the legendary super-marbled, super-expensive beef from Japan that’s now becoming readily available in the UK”. Luckily for those on a budget, its fame and rearing of animals has spread across the globe and lowered prices accordingly.
In South Africa.my favourite meat snack is biltong (a local traditional dried meat delicacy). A favourite online source is Biltong Boykies. They even have a wagyu beef drywors (traditional dried sausage) snack product.
In the end, though, it’s all down to personal preference. And if you prefer vegetarian food, it helps if you will still eat eggs and cheese. A vegan diet can meet all your needs but requires supplementation.
Breakfast – or the first meal after your day starts – gives the opportunity to fuel your body with a wealth of nutrients in one go. But most important thing is the quality of the food you eat, not the dictates of the clock.
In other words, eat only when you are hungry and stop when you start to feel full. In other words, learn to listen to your body.