Breakfast, Bad Habits and Health
Understanding the most important meal
Based on the increased awareness of breakfast and its composition and consumption modalities – in the context of health and wellbeing – it is important to define what is breakfast, its function, and why it is really important.
What is Breakfast?
Do you remember, as a kid, when your mother was asking you to eat breakfast for it will make you strong?
She was trying to send you on the right path – to lay down the right foundation – for your healthy habits.
Now you have grown up and there is simply no time. Life just seems to be work-work-work, and some sleep, and a few healthy habits in between, for it seems too hard to find any time to cook proper meals, and the price of fresh groceries has rocketed so high that processed food has replaced the fresh vegetables in your fridge. And, let’s be honest, they are so convenient, right! 4 minutes in the microwave, and they are ready to eat. And if you feel hungry in between meals then you always have a snack bar handy or a bottle of commercial juice, and may be a coffee to keep you going.
If you do not recognise yourself here, then may be you have kept your mother’s word in the back of your mind – trying to make healthy choices, the best you can.
However, if you feel that the description above is depicting your current lifestyle, then it is perhaps time to change these habits and take control of your body – and what you put in (according to its nutritional needs) – and your health as a whole.
Change may be difficult when we are constantly bombarded by cleverly made advertising campaigns that promote snacking and that eating high-sugar/high-salt/high-Trans-fat has little or no consequences on our body’s functions. Plus, we seem to always be pressed for time, and that food is just there for energy – and this circle starts with breakfast –, a coffee with two teaspoons of sugar sometimes just do, or may be together with a bowl of cereals, or a few toasts with margarine and jam, or a doughnut, and perhaps, on a good day, the juice of a few oranges from a bottle…
“After prolonged night fast, breakfast must first provide readily-available energy to allow coping with the morning activities and those of the day. Skipping breakfast may worsen early morning operations, leading to lower rates of intellectual performance and endurance in the case of physical exercise. In children, adequate breakfast is associated with improved memory performance, attention, ability in problem solving, and better comprehension during reading and listening. Performance is comparatively more efficient not only immediately after consuming breakfast, but also throughout the following hours, as also observed in adult subjects.
Breakfast may modulate brain function by at least two biological mechanisms: a) by providing the central nervous system with essential nutrients and b) by modulating the efficiency of cognitive processes.” (Marangoni, F. et al. 2009)
In short, Breakfast means exactly that – Break-ing the Fast!
So yes, food, including breakfast, is to supply much-needed instant and slow-releasing energy-providing nutrients, especially when following a fast that lasted at least 8 to 10 hours (if you get a decent night sleep).
“Breakfast is integral part of a balanced dietary pattern. Besides regulating the feeling of hunger and satiety throughout the day, it also needs to meet the metabolic requirements that follow an overnight fast.” Maragoni, and his colleagues, explain very simply.
It is also a reason why breakfast should never be skipped. The body needs to replenish with nutrients as discussed; however, caffeine, as a diuretic, will force the body to excrete essentials minerals via the kidneys (e.g. Sodium, Magnesium), some of which act as electrolytes, keeping your body hydrated and within the right pH frame.
If our body does not receive any nutrient for quite a lengthy period of time, considering there are only twenty-four hours in a day, it does truly makes sense that the first food that enters our body must be of great efficiency as to provide energy, but also nutrients that our body desperately needs of replenishing. This includes Protein, Fats and Carbohydrates – also called Macronutrients (primary sources of energy) –, but it must also include Micronutrients (Vitamins – especially, water-Soluble Vitamins – and Minerals) and Phytonutrients, because they all belong to a class of nutrients that support body functions by acting as co-factors in many biological processes, including in energy metabolism (happening in every second in every single cell of the body), liver detoxification, enzymes productions, some of which have extremely important, and vital functions (e.g. cognitive functions and immune protection; and break down of all the food we eat), including digestion and assimilation.
Understanding the physiological function of food
I have just explained that indeed, as an evolution of the mammal group, we are able to extract energy from the food we eat, thus creating heat to warm our bodies. But food has many more function than being a source of energy. As discussed, many nutrients are involved in the functioning of many organs, and systems, some of which are very important, such as the Immune System, the Cardiovascular System, and the Nervous System.
There is one nutrient, amongst others, that has a direct effect on all systems, for it is the body preferred source of energy, of storage of energy, and too little or too much of it has very significant implications on the functioning of the body, and it has a direct impact on your energy level, cognitive function, mood, cardiovascular disease and Diabetes risk, and cancers. (Slawson, C. et al. 2010; Michaud, D. et al. 2002; Slattery, ML. 1997)
This nutrient is sugar, or more precisely Glucose. Depending on the food we eat, ingested Glucose, as found in Carbohydrates, acts directly on Blood Glucose Levels. A higher intake of refined Carbohydrates for example (White Sugar, White Flour, White Bread, White Pasta, White Rice, processed food, sugary drinks, etc.), will raise Blood Glucose Levels accordingly. Complex Carbohydrates, due in part to their higher content in Fibre, may release Glucose more slowly into the blood stream; however, they will still have an impact on raising Blood Glucose Levels.
See illustration below to understand Blood Sugar (Glucose) Levels.
As shown on illustration, Sugar intake and Insulin are both involved in raising and reducing Blood Glucose Levels, respectively. Since they are linked together, a higher intake of sugar(s) will raise dramatically Blood Glucose levels and therefore of Insulin production and secretion into the blood stream.
The role of insulin is to act as a key: opening the door to Glucose, so that it can enter each cell and be used as fuel for instant energy production, or stored to be used during fasting periods, including sleep, intense physical exercise, etc.
This mechanism has served us well during our million of years of evolution; however, we eat more sugar than any time before, which is found in large amount in any processed and refined foods today, and sugary drinks and snacks. In the Western World, we are also faced with mountains of foods and advertising billboards on a daily basis, and we have lost our ability to self-regulate our appetite and Blood Glucose Levels (Zheng, H. et al. 2009). With the increase of sugar intake, the demand on the Pancreas has intensified immensely, which is responsible for producing and releasing Insulin into the blood stream to lock Glucose away.
It is important to note that Glucose, when present in blood, is damaging to the blood vessels and is also acidifying, so the body works very hard at keep Blood Glucose levels under check but also, and especially, Blood pH.
The Insulin response is generated once Glucose is present in the blood, thus creating a delayed response.
As seen on diagram below, the delayed Insulin response means that Insulin is still being released long after glucose has been safely placed inside body cells (red line). The higher the peak of Glucose Blood Level (from eating a highly processed meal, or high GI/GL, or sweets/sugar/sugary drinks/etc.) the more insulin needs to be produced by the Pancreas, and the longer Insulin will be pumped into the bloodstream, which on the long run will have a direct impact on Insulin-resistance.
More importantly, however, this is why you “crash” after a high Glucose Load meal or snack, because as Insulin is being released into the Bloodstream Glucose is no longer available by all organs requiring energy (including the Brain):
= Decreased energy
= Reaching for stimulants (coffee, Caffeine-containing drinks, Energy drinks, etc.) and sugar rich-foods; and the cycle continues. Creating a Blood Glucose level high-and-low rollercoaster (Illustration 1)
Smaller peak of Glucose (from eating food with little impact on Blood Glucose Levels) means less Insulin is produced and released = No crash.
If there is a short sharp surge of Insulin, Glucose drop to safe levels and the Insulin can drop back to zero and the body can go back to burning excess energy stored in Body Fat, and the beta cells that make the Insulin in the Pancreas can rest up for the next time you eat a meal.
Once Insulin Resistance (when cells stop being sensitive to Insulin. Insulin, as a key no longer fits the lock) has started, and you have to produce more and more Insulin, the pattern will likely get worse. Most importantly, there will be so much Insulin in circulation in the blood stream that when it finally starts working to lower your Glucose – it over corrects and drops Glucose below the level that the body (especially the Brain) likes.
On the long run, if no diet changes are made, this will lead to Type II Diabetes. Eventually, if this situation goes on for long enough, it may lead to permanently high Glucose and the Pancreas will have to produce Massive amounts of Insulin – and fat cells will never get switched from fat accumulation mode into fat burning mode = Obesity.
You feel run down, exhausted, and instinctively turn to sugar and/or caffeine to bolster flagging energy reserves, but when this becomes a routine, fatigue runs you down physically and emotionally, and wreaks havoc on the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness, depression, and even chronic conditions like heart disease. However, proper nutrition and timing of what you eat can do wonders to make you feel alert and full of energy.
Despite the health benefits of tea and coffee, if you're feeling run down, avoid Caffeine (coffee and Caffeine-containing drinks). It gives a ’false’ sense of energy, because it is a stimulant. And after it peaks, you can start to feel even more tired.
A little bit of dark chocolate can positively boost your energy and mood. That's because of the caffeine in chocolate, along with another stimulant called Theobromine. Aim for a square (or two) of chocolate, if you are desperately looking to reach for a coffee.
Avoid sugar in all of its forms (SUGAR IS SUGAR! – Fructose, Glucose, White/Brown Sugar, Coconut Sugar, Natural Sweeteners such as Agave or Maple Syrup, Brown Rice Syrup, molasses...), and refined foods, which cause blood sugar to spike and plummet, making you feel tired and moody.
Eat an energising breakfast (think fuel): it should contain Essential Fatty Acids, including Omega-3s (think Almonds in your porridge, Avocado smoothie!), fruits, including Antioxidant-rich berries, Protein, Complex Carbohydrates (think soaked Oats with Cinnamon and Turmeric), and Fibre. Your body absorbs whole grains more slowly, keeping your blood sugar and energy levels stable, helping you to stay alert and productive during the day (= no blood sugar level rollercoaster - Illustration 1).
Never skip meals and eat whole foods – avoid highly processed foods, usually void of nutrient and packed with empty-calories, raising your blood sugar level, leading to a dip that will have you crave for sweet foods or caffeine to compensate, as explained earlier.
Eat Superfoods, again to increase your antioxidant load, to fight free radicals and their oxidative damage.
Consume the right Fats. Remember your body needs Fat and it cannot absorb many nutrients such as Vitamin A, D, E, and K, in the absence of dietary Fat. Many more nutrients are fat-dependant, so choose your fat carefully, and look at keeping an ideal Omega-3:Omega-6 ratio 1:1–1:2. (Remember: Dark Green Leafy Vegetables are also a good source of Omega-3s).
Sleep debt has a harmful impact on carbohydrate metabolism and endocrine function. The effects are similar to those seen in normal ageing and, therefore, sleep debt may increase the severity of age-related chronic disorders. Chronic lack of Sleep has a direct effect on Higher Blood Glucose Levels and higher Cortisol release, which has a direct impact on the ability to fall asleep. Spiegel, K. et al. 1999)
Marangoni, F. et al. (2009). A consensus document on the role of breakfast in the attainment and maintenance of health and wellness. Acta bio-medica: Atenei Parmensis. 80, pp. 166–171. Available at: http://www.ceereal.eu/documents/marangoni.pdf
Michaud, D. et al. (2002). Dietary Sugar, Glycemic Load, and Pancreatic Cancer Risk in a Prospective Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 94 (17), pp. 1293–1300.
Slawson, C. Copeland, RJ. Hart, GW. (2010). O-GlcNAc signaling: a metabolic link between diabetes and cancer? Trends in Biochemical Sciences. 35 (10), pp. 547–555.
Slattery, ML. et al. (1997). Dietary sugar and colon cancer. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention. 6, pp. 677–685. Available at: http://cebp.aacrjournals.org/content/6/9/677.full.pdf+html.
Spiegel, K. Leproult, R. Van Cauter, E. (1999). Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. Impact of sleep debt on metabolic and endocrine function. The Lancet. 354 (9188), pp. 1435–1439.
Zheng, H. et al. (2009). Appetite control and energy balance regulation in the modern world: reward-driven brain overrides repletion signals. International Journal of Obesity. 33, pp. S8–S13. Available at: http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v33/n2s/full/ijo200965a.html.
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Olivier is a Michelin trained chef, a registered Naturopath and Nutritional Therapist, embracing fully his passion for good food and healthy eating.