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The great breakfast debate: to eat or to skip?

In our regular health column, VERNE MAREE feels it pays to keep a flexible mind about nutrition – including the old belief that breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Think how many of the nuggets of knowledge we learnt at mum’s knee turned out to be plain wrong. For starters, that she knows everything, that Christmas presents come from Santa, that kissing a sore knee makes it better, that a little butter heals a burn (maybe that was Granny, come to think of it), that eating carrots makes your hair curl… and that you absolutely have to eat your breakfast.

To eat or not to eat, that is the question
To eat or not to eat, that is the question

Fortunately, a flexible young mind manages to accept the horrible truth about the bearded man in red, and by the age of 15 we realise that it is ourselves who know everything, and that the adults know nothing at all.

Take breakfast, for one. (Or skip it.) When it comes to what we eat – as with most other things – I believe we are all so different that we need to find out for ourselves what works for us. Especially, we need to question the foundation of the myths we’re fed; I reckon the breakfast story was started by the Kelloggs and Quaker Oats of this world, supported by food industry lobby groups.

I’ve never been a happy breakfaster. My well-meaning mother insisted on forcing a bowl of hot cereal into us every morning before school, alternating between oats porridge, maize porridge, Maltabella (a sorghum meal porridge much loved by most South Africans) and Weetbix. How I dreaded Weetbix! Drenched in honey and hot milk, with more milk added incrementally by well-meaning parents as the grain absorbed ever more of the liquid, it would persist in expanding and become impossible to finish. (Granted, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Weetbix, and I could probably eat one today: dry, like a biscuit, but not at 7am.)

Mother isn’t entirely to blame (this time), as the whole world believed that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. You know: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper. And good for her that she went to the trouble of making us fresh porridge, rather than sugary crap like Froot Loops, Coco Pops, and the like.

Nevertheless, breakfast made me feel sick then and still does; sometimes, I’d literally have to throw up. It wasn’t just the slimy porridge that did it: our rare Sunday egg-and-bacon fry-up did the same unless it was postponed to late morning.

So, I’ve never believed that breakfast is good for me. Nothing that makes you feel so bad can possibly do you any good; as with everything else, you’ve got to listen to your unique body.

I have friends who must eat breakfast to maintain their blood sugar levels and avoid a 10am collapse at the water-cooler. Others are more like me – able to do a long morning run or even race on an empty stomach and then enjoy lunch much later, with no ill-effects. Not feeling hunger for several hours after a run, I watch amazed as others, still panting and sweaty and straight from the finish-line, tuck into the bananas, cookies, hot dogs, mee hoon or whatever else the organisers have kindly laid on. My friend Pat back in South Africa was like that too, ecstatically sniffing the bacon and coffee wafting from suburban homes as we jogged along Sunday morning sidewalks.

Are you actually hungry?
Are you actually hungry?

I know, I told you so!

So, imagine my delight when the tide of opinion started to turn away from the necessity to breakfast. In fact, there’s no scientific evidence for it; it’s nothing but an unsubstantiated “shared belief”, in the words of John Beard, PhD. Lots of scientists and health gurus agree with him.

Though some government authorities and mainstream doctors will no doubt continue toeing the old line for a couple more years (being notoriously slow to keep up with anything except the latest wonder drugs), there’s plenty of evidence that breakfast is not essential for everyone:

* One 2015 Columbia study dispelled the myth that skipping breakfast means eating more during the rest of the day. One group ate oatmeal for breakfast, another ate Frosted Flakes, and one skipped breakfast. Overweight people who skipped breakfast were the only group that lost weight.

* Discussed just last month in dailymail.co.uk, research from the University of Bath (published in the American Journal for Clinical Nutrition) found against the truism that breakfast-skippers merely make up for it by gorging later on. The main difference? The breakfast-skippers ate fewer calories over the course of the day. What’s more, they found no change in metabolism between those who ate nothing for breakfast and those who consumed 700 calories before noon, 350 of those within two hours of waking.

Listen to your body

Are you actually hungry first thing in the morning, or might you do better taking a mid-morning snack of fresh fruit or a handful of raw nuts to tide you over until lunch? In your experience, does breakfast really “give you energy”? Or does it make you feel sluggish, and then just as hungry come lunchtime?

Here’s another question. If you’ve always believed it’s unwise to exercise in the morning without having eaten something, why not at least give it a go? Both intermittent fasting (as a lifestyle, not as a “diet”) and exercising in a fasted state have been shown to deliver astounding health and fitness benefits: promoting cellular repair and enhanced gene expression, lowering blood levels of insulin and increasing human growth hormone up to five-fold (for better fat-burning and muscle gain) for starters. Trawl mercola.com and authoritynutrition.com for more.

Conclusion

It’s no wonder that breakfast is so popular with those who can take it. As fitmole.com amusingly points out, it includes some of the yummiest foods on the planet, from fry-ups to Philly-laden bagels, and from eggs Benedict to waffles dripping with maple syrup. Thank goodness for joints that serve all-day breakfast!

Finally, eating nutritious food in the right amounts has to be what counts – far more so than when we eat it. And we can all benefit from keeping an open mind, and perhaps trying a different way that might work better for us. Here’s to our good health!

Read the full article in June/July issue of Expat Living or in our E-mag here.

Feeling hungry now? Take a look a some recipes and restaurants to give you some foodie inspiration

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