Diet

Breakfast: The most misunderstood meal of the day.

You've probably heard that "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” or that “Breakfast will jump-start your metabolism” . Sadly, this is far from the truth. Discover what the science really says about this and whether having breakfast will help or hurt you with your health goals. We've also rated the usual breakfast choices so that you can make better choices.

Kannan
Aug 23, 2020

The morning seems to be the busiest time of day for me. A lot needs to happen in a short span of time - wake up, brush, have a bath, get the kids to do the same, get them ready for school with the right bags, snacks, lunch, books etc, grab a quick breakfast and maybe sort out the house a little bit from the messes of the earlier day. Only after all of this is done can I take a little break, either at home or once I get to work.

Before I had kids, I usually woke up just in time to get ready and leave for work. So it has always seemed like the mornings are a jam-packed affair.  But it didn't seem like there was anything wrong with it at all. After all, what could I possibly do wrong with basic tasks like brushing my teeth or breakfast?

But I did find something I was doing wrong - my breakfast.

Here’s how I made that discovery.

As my 30s whizzed by, I became more conscious about my health. This made me question the things I was used to doing and had never stopped to think about. Everything has a cause and in this case, the cause had to be me and something (or things) I was not getting right. I realised that the excess weight and unfit body I had at the time didn't just happen by itself. I knew that I had a sweet tooth - that’s a polite way of saying that I often ate large amounts of sugar disguised in the form of food. I also did not exercise much and most of the day was spent sitting. So eating less sugar and doing some exercise seemed like things I had to deal with.

As I looked at other changes I should make, for a long time I did not consider touching my morning breakfast. I had been a religious breakfast eater for years. Breakfast changed from time to time but included everything from bread & jam, weetabix, corn flakes, cereal bars, eggs, dosa, peanut butter sandwiches, oats and fruit-based shakes. I had heard often enough that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. So I made adjustments to my food for the rest of the day, but did not focus on my breakfast.

I was wrong.

The big fat breakfast lie

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”

“Breakfast will jump-start your metabolism”

Surely statements like this must be based on clear scientific evidence, right? Turns out that is not the case.

Much of the research suggesting that breakfast is absolutely crucial for your health has been funded by cereal makers. And we’ve been eating it up.

We’ve also stopped asking the two basic questions that we should ask before we eat:

  • Am I hungry?
  • Am I eating food that’s good for me?

Once you get back to these basics, it becomes rather clear what you should be doing.

The 3 common breakfast mistakes that we see when we coach people are:

Mistake 1: You’re not hungry, but you eat breakfast anyway

This means that you’re adding an extra meal to your day. It should be no surprise that having an extra meal will hurt your waistline and health.

Mistake 2: Your breakfast looks more like dessert

If you’re eating anything sugary for breakfast, then it’s really dessert in disguise. Examples are sweet cereals, granola, muesli, pancakes, bars, juices. See the foods in the ‘red’ column in the image below. They might be advertised as “whole-grain”, “high-fibre” or “made with real fruit”, but most of them have between 5-10 spoons of sugar.

Mistake 3: Your breakfast has 3 things - carbs, more carbs and even more carbs

As I write this, I struggled to think of any vegetable that makes its way into breakfast. Almost all the breakfast options that come to mind are grains (carbohydrates) - bread, oats, corn flakes, dosa, poha, idli etc. All sweet things including juices and fruit will also be carbs. Nothing wrong with carbs, but when your daily diet is 80% carbs, you’ve got a problem. And a breakfast that is 100% carbs makes it worse.

A poor breakfast also sets you up for more poor eating during the day. A sugary breakfast triggers sweet cravings later and a high carb breakfast will have a similar effect. So not only has breakfast itself hurt you, it’s pushed you to make poor choices during the rest of your day too.

A poor breakfast triggers a chain reaction of poor food choices over the rest of the day.

It doesn't take an expert to figure out what years of such eating will do to your body. The obvious effect is that you put on excess weight, but the real damage happens inside your body as the excess fat and sugars wreak havoc with various systems inside. The results are the diseases you see around you today - diabetes, hypertension, heart issues, joint problems, thyroid and fertility problems. The resulting anxiety, body image issues and guilt also impact your mental health.

What should you do?

Start by asking the right questions.

Are you hungry?

This might sound radical but are you even hungry in the morning? If you are, please do have breakfast.

If you’re not hungry in the morning, why are you eating?

If you have medical issues like diabetes, or are under the supervision of a doctor and they’ve asked you to eat breakfast, please follow their guidance. Other than that, there’s really no reason you should be eating breakfast if you’re not hungry.

I was a religious breakfast eater for years. Then I stopped. Why? I just wasn’t hungry in the morning and having breakfast started feeling like a chore. So I thought - why am I not listening to my body? I’ll eat when I’m hungry.

That was over 10 years ago.

What happened? Nothing really. In fact, I found that overall I needed less food in a day. It was actually quite liberating to not eat as per the clock and just listen to my body. I also do intermittent fasting on a regular basis where I don’t eat for 16hrs (10pm to 2pm the next day) and then eat within an 8hr window (2-10pm). Skipping breakfast works perfectly within my fasting period.

So stop and check-in with your body before you decide whether to eat breakfast.

Make breakfast count

If you’re having breakfast, make it work for you. When you think about what to have for breakfast and in general about your diet, you need to remember 3 things:

  • Food quality
  • Food quality; and
  • Food quality.

What you eat matters more than anything else. Skip packaged cereals and instead choose unprocessed whole foods like grains, dairy, eggs, vegetables and fruit to build a healthy plate.

To make this easy to implement for you, I’ve noted below breakfast options and organised them into three categories:

  • Green: high quality & nutritious, and therefore great choices to include on a daily basis.
  • Amber: not ideal, but they do have some nutrients and are ok to have sometimes.
  • Red: these are not doing much for your body, other than some damage. Give them a miss.

As far as possible, go green. If you find that you’re currently having foods that are mostly in the amber box, you’ll see that with some small adjustments you can make those green too.

The most misunderstood meal of the day for Indian-The Daily9
Download a high-resolution PDF for your reference & to share.

Be flexible

Be flexible and don’t force yourself to have breakfast if you don’t feel like it.

Our lives are busy and no two days are the same. Be flexible.

Here are some examples of real life situations and how you can adapt your breakfast:

  • If you have an early dinner, it's likely you'll be hungry soon after you wake-up. Having breakfast makes a lot of sense.
  • If you had a late & heavy dinner, you won’t be hungry in the morning. So don’t force yourself to eat breakfast.
  • If you exercise early in the morning and then feel hungry, eat something.
  • If you wake up very early, then it's likely you can’t wait till lunch, so a breakfast will work well.
  • If you’re not hungry enough for breakfast but can’t wait till lunch, carry something with you or have a healthy mid-morning snack (pick from the green options).

Always check-in with your body first and experiment to see what works best for you. In general, don't try to force yourself into an eating pattern that doesn’t sit well with you or that you can’t sustain — it may end up backfiring.

Breakfast and weight loss

In the Daily9 coacing programme, we get a lot of questions about breakfast and whether it helps or hurts with weight loss. We always go back to the basic principles outlined above and then guide people through it to help them decide what works best for them. It’s also worth knowing what the science on this topic says.

There’s been research over the last 30 years on breakfast and its effect on body weight. A recent paper published in the British Medical Journal looked at all of these studies and what they showed. In summary, the conclusion was:

There is no evidence to support the notion that having breakfast promotes weight loss or that skipping breakfast leads to weight gain.

They also noted that the addition of breakfast might not be a good strategy for weight loss and that it could possibly have the opposite effect.

Myth v fact

It seems relevant to bust some myths here that are related to the topic of breakfast.

Myth #1: You need to eat small meals throughout the day


There is no evidence that eating small meals throughout the day is necessary (except in specific situations where doctors may advise regular meals, e.g. for diabetics). It certainly does not ‘boost’ your metabolism. Also, if you eat by the clock you may never stop to actually become hungry.

Myth #2: Skipping breakfast causes ulcers

It’s been shown that the most common cause for Ulcers is a bacterial infection called Heliobacter Pylori. Dr Barry Marshall and his colleague Robin Warren proved this in 1982 and for this, they were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2005.

If you're confused, I understand. Health and nutrition information is everywhere and most of it is unreliable. Here's the bottom line when it comes to breakfast:

If you need breakfast in the morning, carry on. Choose healthy foods - pick the green options from the table. If you’re not hungry, don’t force yourself to eat breakfast.

Ultimately, the only thing that matters is what works for you. Experiment with the options I’ve noted. If you listen to your body and pick high quality foods, good things will happen.

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