Skipping food in the morning is the worst thing for your body. Christine Doyle explains how to avoid those mid-morning drops in energy without piling on the pounds
Most people value the days when they wake up in a good mood and full of energy, ready to tackle whatever lies before them. Many, though, find their good cheer and resolve seeping away after a long commute or taking children to school.
Even those who energise themselves, by walking briskly to their train, or who pedal for 20 minutes on their exercise bike before starting the day, are sometimes surprised by how swiftly the supposedly healthy start to their day fizzles out.
The answer could lie with what they eat - or do not eat - for breakfast. This week, food experts at a conference in London will discuss how to re-engineer the nation’s diet in an attempt to reverse the growing trend to tubbiness and the allied risks of heart disease, diabetes and strokes. Breakfast, as the speakers will emphasise, is pivotal to staying in good health.
After the overnight fast, the body needs a rise in blood sugar to recharge the metabolism and get the brain and muscles into top gear. The trick is to eat food that does not cause a swift rise and fall in blood sugar levels, followed by a slump in energy and the desire to eat a sugary snack. This only leads to a further rise and fall in sugar levels, and a craving for an early, calorie-packed lunch. Skipping breakfast also encourages a mid-morning croissant binge, with a similar result.
Oats, wholegrain breads and baked beans are among the “low glycaemic” carbohydrates that result in a sustained but powerful release of insulin and steady blood sugar levels. This regulates the body’s biochemical harmony and improves mood and decision-making.
“A heartier breakfast also helps slimmers,” says Lyndel Costain, a member of the British Dietetic Association and author of The Body Clock Diet (Hamlyn, ?9.99), citing the latest research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Breakfast eaters consume fewer calories during the day than those who skip this meal.
“They also have better appetite control and lower blood cholesterol level with especially lower levels of lower-density lipoprotein, the damaging component in cholesterol. Those who eat a regular breakfast are about
50 per cent less likely to become overweight than those who don’t. And if they are slimming, they are more likely to keep the weight off.”
Breakfast is also one of the best ways to get fibre into the diet, says Claire MacEvilly, of the Medical Research Council’s human nutrition unit in Cambridge. “The daily recommendation for fibre is 18g, but very few people consume that level. A bowl of cereal is the best way to get 6 to 7g very easily. A bowl of AllBran would provide 12g.”
Some food experts are worried that a proposed new traffic light system to label foods according to a high, medium or low sugar and salt content may confuse consumers, says MacEvilly. “Some people might simply stop eating cereals if they have a red or amber label. We don’t want them to give up. We want to encourage them to read the labels and make healthier choices within categories.”
There is no reason why breakfast has to be boring or stodgy. And there is no reason not to have a full English breakfast occasionally - with a few tiny adjustments. As a rough guide, breakfasts should contain around 350 to 400 calories for women and 500 for men. Here are six of the best healthy starts to the day.
Eat well to lose pounds
Slimmers should aim to eat 300 calories for breakfast, about one third less than those who are already at their desired weight, says dietitian Lyndel Costain. These are low-fat but sustaining recipes. Slimmers are advised to keep suitable mid-morning snacks, such as a handful of nuts or raisins, to hand.
125ml glass of orange juice
One poached or boiled egg
One generous slice of wholewheat soda bread
One teaspoon olive oil spread
Tea, coffee or herbal tea
One small glass of chilled tomato juice
One bagel with 25g smoked salmon or wafer-thin, honey-roast ham and 25g “light” cream cheese
In his tempting, new book GI Diet (Kyle Cathie, ?12.99), Antony Worrall Thompson provides the lowdown on choosing foods that have a low glycaemic index and therefore release energy slowly. Men, particularly, seem to find this a satisfying and robust approach to culinary matters. Porridge is a star turn.
To serve six
200g medium oatmeal or porridge oats
A pinch of salt
half tsp ground cinnamon
low-fat natural yogurt
350g fresh or frozen berries, such as strawberries, blackberries, raspberries or blueberries.
Put 1.2l water on to boil. When it boils, add the oats slowly and stir continuously. Stir in the salt and cinnamon when it faintly “burps”. Leave it to cook gently for about 15 minutes, or until it has a sloppy texture. Add a dollop of yogurt and top with the berries.
Make it brunch on Sunday
Start the day slowly with coffee, orange juice and the papers. Follow a little later with brunch. There is nothing wrong with making this a full English breakfast with all the trimmings.
Black pudding, sausage, eggs, grilled tomatoes, bacon, even fried bread, if you love it. But this does not have to be a greasy spoon-type fry-up, says Costain. Grill everything, rather than frying. Perhaps have just one sausage and one lean slice of bacon, and poach or scramble the egg. Grilled fresh herrings and soda bread are very comforting, too.
Beating the blues
It’s tempting to skip breakfast when feeling low. But a few days of eating a balanced breakfast could make you feel a lot better. Mix low-fat yogurt - sweetened or unsweetened - with cereal fortified with B vitamins.
Many cereals also have added iron to help mild anaemia. Add chopped fresh fruit or berries to gain more vitamins and antioxidants. Finish off with a slice of wholegrain bread and olive oil.
Alternatively, try the so-called “intelligent” eggs, laid by hens fed with omega-3 fish oils. These buffer the brain against depression by encouraging the production of mood-regulating hormones, says Costain.
Help for hot flushes
Menopausal symptoms can drain energy and concentration, especially when combined with unexpected hot flushes. The regular consumption of soya foods is said to explain why Japanese women rarely suffer hot flushes and sweats.
A reader says the following breakfast has made all the difference to her energy levels and symptoms.
Two to three dessert spoons of All-Bran
100ml soya milk
One tablespoon of mixed ground nuts, such as linseed, sunflower, pumpkin and sesame.
Blueberries or other colourful fruit
Revision date: July 7, 2011
Last revised: by Janet A. Staessen, MD, PhD