Myth No. 1: Breakfast cereals are healthy
Oh no they’re not. They’re largely carbohydrates befouled by sugar, and it is hard to think of a worse morning meal. In 2006 the British consumer protection magazine Which? examined 275 different breakfast cereals, finding that ‘Nearly 90 per cent of the cereals in our sample that targeted children were high in sugar, 13 per cent were high in salt and 10 per cent were high in saturated fat.’ The report was entitled Cereal Re-offenders, referring to the reluctance of the manufacturers to respond to repeated criticisms
And though the manufacturers may add nutrients to their products, they will first have removed them: here is Felicity Lawrence’s account in her 2008 book Eat Your Heart Out of the denuding of cornflake nourishment: Cornflakes are generally made by breaking corn kernels into smaller grits which are then steam cooked in batches of up to a tonne under pressure of about 20lbs per square inch. The nutritious germ with its essential fats is first removed because, as the Kellogg brothers discovered all that time ago, it goes rancid over time and gets in the way of long shelf life. Flavourings, vitamins to replace those lost in processing and sugar may be added at this stage.
Myth No. 2: Breakfast is good for the brain
Really? It is widely supposed that children and adolescents must do better at school, cognition-wise, if they eat breakfast, yet the conclusions of the most systematic reviews of the field are surprisingly tentative. So two comprehensive reviews of forty-five studies conducted between 1950 and 2008 concluded that eating breakfast seems to benefit the education only of children from deprived homes – and not necessarily because their brains need the morning calories but perhaps because children from deprived homes, on being lured to school by free food programmes, cannot then truant.
If the evidence for breakfast benefiting the cognition of children is weak, it is even weaker for adults. In 1992 a study from the Department of Psychology, Cardiff University, Wales, found that, though breakfast seemed to improve adults’ morning ‘recognition memory’ and ‘logical reasoning’, it impaired their afternoon ‘semantic processing’. In 1994 the Cardiff psychologists found that breakfast improved ‘free recall’ and ‘recognition memory’, had no effect on ‘semantic memory’, but impaired ‘logical reasoning’.
So eating breakfast seems to improve some aspects of brain function yet impair others, and the general lack of certainty over what – if anything – breakfast does systematically to brain function was revealed by a 2014 review of the fifteen most careful research papers in children and adults which concluded that: ‘There is insufficient quantity and consistency among studies to draw firm conclusions.’
Myth No. 3: Breakfast is slimming
Pundit after pundit asserts that breakfast produces satiety (from the Latin satis, enough). Breakfast, it is claimed, fills people’s stomachs and raises their blood sugar levels so they eat less at subsequent meals. Is this true?
There are of course peer-reviewed scientific papers that make such assertions, and a man who has written many of them is Dr John de Castro, a Texas psychologist, who in 2004 wrote: ‘we found that when individual subjects ate a larger than mean proportion of their total intake in the morning, they ate significantly less over the entire day.’1 Which apparently means that the more someone eats at breakfast, the less they eat during the rest of the day. De Castro attributed this to satiety. Here is his model: Eat breakfast → satiety → eat less at lunch → lose weight.
This is a powerful model, which at first sight seems to make sense. But most scientists find the exact opposite. In a recent study David Levitsky and Carly Pacanowski of Cornell University, New York, showed that when subjects were provided with light breakfasts (approx. 350 calories) their intake at lunch was completely unchanged: i.e. those 350 breakfast calories did not cause a compensatory fall in lunch calories, so on eating breakfast their daily intake went up by 350 calories. Moreover, when the subjects ate full breakfasts of around 624 calories, they reduced their lunch calories by only about 144 calories, causing a net increase of 480 calories a day.
No wonder Levitsky and Pacanowski concluded that ‘skipping breakfast may be an effective means to reduce energy intake.’ The Levitsky and Pacanowski model is, therefore: Skip breakfast → consume less food → reduce energy intake or vice versa Eat breakfast → consume more food → increase energy intake. And what made Levitsky and Pacanowski’s study so significant is that they showed that ‘these data are consistent with published literature.’ That is to say there is widespread agreement that de Castro’s satiety hypothesis is wrong and that eating breakfast increases energy intake.
And if you must eat breakfast?
What to eat if you must eat breakfast and if you’re insulin-sensitive? Here is the good news. If you’re slim, fit and young, and if you can’t find an effective breakfast-avoiding strategy, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t eat it! As long as you avoid carbohydrates and sugar, there’s no reason not to enjoy it. You’re a member of a privileged minority (fit, slim and young) so you could claim the eating of a low-carbohydrate breakfast as a bonus, one you’ve earned by being healthful.
But to stay healthful, you’ll need to be careful in your eating choices. Protein and fat will both be good for you, so eggs would make a useful morning meal. But since most morning meats and fish (bacon, sausages, kippers, smoked haddock, smoked salmon and so on) are – to render them piquant – processed or smoked, they should probably be eschewed (so in his 1669 assertion that ‘Two Poched Eggs with a few fine dry-fryed collops of pure Bacon, are not bad for break-fast,’ Sir Kenelm Digby was only half right).
Also to be eschewed are croissants and cake and toast and jam and honey and marmalade and fruit juices – they are the foods of the devil – as are baked beans (which are packed with sugar) and almost everything that comes in a tin or packet. Breakfast cereals, meanwhile, are not just foods of the devil, they are the actual devil incarnate, sitting on your kitchen table, and they should be consigned to the eternal flames as quickly as possible, preferably unopened, via the rubbish truck on its way to a municipal incinerator. (Breakfast carbohydrates will raise the blood glucose levels even of healthy people and thus help trigger the metabolic syndrome.)
And porridge, I’m afraid, is also bad for you. People find that hard to believe (just as many Japanese people find it hard to believe that white rice is dangerous) but I’m afraid the cardiac death rates in Scotland are not just the product of whisky – porridge plays its ignoble share in that holocaust. Muesli is another emanation from the nether regions, made even worse by its false pretence to health (look at its composition on the packet).
Yet here is some good news: berries such as strawberries and blueberries have surprisingly low glycaemic indices and loads (they have pleasantly low levels of sugar, and they come with fibre) and when served with lashings of cream (we know that dairy products are good for you) they are delicious, so they’re safe (there’s less sugar in cream than in full-fat yoghurt; almost all low-fat yoghurts are, of course, sugar bombs and therefore deadly).