Health and nutrition: Breakfast is actually really bad for you and here’s why
"Breakfast is the most important meal of the day." It’s probably the most pervasive cliche in the history of health and nutrition, one of those unquestioned soundbites that health experts never grow tired of parroting at us. For many people, that early-morning feast is a culinary high point; without which we would surely despair. When I tell people that I routinely skip breakfast, they look at me as if I’m peculiar.
I’m then told about the laundry list of problems I’ve brought upon myself, as if forgoing oatmeal and a croissant is as risky as smoking five packs of cigarettes on my way to work. I’m curtly informed that without breakfast I’ll be more sluggish, that I’ll actually put on weight, that my concentration will wane and my metabolism drop. Forget lunch? Fine. Go to bed without supper? On you go. But you miss out breakfast at your own peril… apparently.
I say "apparently" because, although the statement has gone uncorrected until now, there's almost no concrete evidence to support it. Breakfast isn’t actually the most important meal of the day. In fact, it might actually be worse for us in the long term than nothing at all. If you also choose to skip breakfast, or see it as a trivial exercise, then you’re probably nodding your head sagely right now, content that someone else has confirmed what you've long suspected.
But if you’re a big fan of breakfast (and let's face it: since it gives you an excuse to chow on bacon and maple syrup, it’s more likely that are you are) then you’re probably won’t be very receptive to the idea that breakfast as you know it is a lie. You’re probably thinking: "If eating breakfast isn’t good for you, then where the hell did that pithy one-liner come from?" If that’s the case then allow me to relieve you of your misconceptions. The saying "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" isn’t health advice. On the contrary: it’s half Puritan propaganda and half a sneaky marketing ploy.
The story begins in the 19th century, with a man who harboured a borderline disturbing fixation with masturbation. John Harvey Kellogg was a nutritionist and physician, and later one of the original founders of Kellogg’s corporation. He's today remembered as the man who invented Corn Flakes; a sincerely religious guy who believed wholeheartedly in vegetarianism, regular exercise, and curtailing the male libido. Seriously, Kellogg seemed to be comically paranoid about what he labeled as "self-abuse." Over the years he dreamed up a number of ways of preventing any male ejaculation outside of lawful marital intercourse. Kellogg erroneously believed that a regular diet of bland and tasteless food was the only way of putting the kibosh on sexual arousal.
Kellogg believed that the "pernicious habit of onanism" served to cause cancer of the womb, urinary diseases, nocturnal emissions, impotence, epilepsy and madness. "If illicit commerce of the sexes is a heinous sin," he wrote (in his book In Plain Facts for Old and Young: Embracing the Natural History and Hygiene of Organic Life), "self-pollution is a crime doubly abominable." To that end he made breakfast cereal as tasteless as he could. But since it was so bland as to be akin to eating cardboard, how was Kellogg to market this food product to the American public?
Kellogg, and others of his ilk, coined the phrase "breakfast is the most important meal of the day" in order to dupe health-conscious Americans. The slogan was so snappy and catchy that nobody ever questioned whether or not the claim was backed up by anything like actual evidence. Soon other interested parties, such as pig and chicken farmers, also promoted the idea to boost their sales of eggs and bacon.
But now people are finally beginning to question the dietary assumptions they've grown up with, and new evidence appears to suggest that brekkie is doing more harm than good in the long-run. In his book, Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal, Professor Terence Kealey, (Oxford-educated biochemist and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham), states "breakfast foods are usually made from refined and processed grains, added sugars and damaged fats."
"Most lack good-quality protein and fat, and are instead full of empty, sugary calories, meaning they don’t fill you up and offer little in the way of nutrition. Yet so many of us mindlessly grab them out of our cupboards every morning because we’ve been raised on TV adverts that tell us these are foods to eat for breakfast and that breakfast is vital to good health."
For one thing, breakfast does not satiate our appetite. On the contrary, it only serves to whet it more keenly, and make us gorge come lunchtime. Eating soon after rising also bears risks due to a certain hormone. When we wake up in the morning, it's mostly thanks to something called cortisol. One of the side effects of this morning cortisol spike is that it causes the body to resist insulin, meaning that the insulin levels in our blood rise far higher when we eat breakfast than after any other meal.
Nutritional therapist Amelia Freer also believes that we should begin to give up breakfast and save it as a special treat, saying "I totally agree that breakfast isn’t as important a meal as we have been led to believe. I’ll often help clients to move away from breakfast and towards two larger meals a day instead. But they have to be eating the right things for this to be beneficial, so it’s something I work towards rather than just asking someone to stop eating breakfast – especially if they have a bad diet."
Of course, if you feel like you absolutely have to scoff something in the morning, then by all means listen to the rhythm of your own metabolism - but substitute the cereal, or worse the pastries and fry-up, for something a little bit more wholesome and substantial. Try eating something without so many carbohydrates, such as porridge, eggs or a Greek yoghurt rich in whey protein. Ultimately, breakfast isn't going to kill you, but we should certainly stop acting as though skipping it will. Personally, I'm stressed out enough in the morning without having to worry about that.