Warming up to breakfast

What did you have for breakfast this morning? More to the point, did you even eat breakfast? If you’re like many people, chances are you skipped it altogether, even though this first meal of the day is supposed to be the most important.

It’s hard to get a handle on the number of those who abstain from breakfast. Various studies have tried to pin this down and come up with wildly varying estimates: 4 percent, 5.1 percent, 16 percent. One survey involving mostly poor and rural middle-school students put it at 38 percent.

Once upon a time, skipping breakfast was usually a sign of a poor or low-income household. This no longer seems to be the case as more and more families of all income levels succumb to calorie-counting and time constraints. In fact, breakfast-skipping appears to be on the rise, with many surveys finding a growing number of households where breakfast is consumed as an afterthought or not at all.

Why does breakfast matter? The majority of studies have found numerous benefits for both children and adults. Kids seem to function better in school when they’ve started their day with a good breakfast. Ditto for adults in the workplace. Researchers have noted better memory, concentration and problem-solving, and even higher energy levels among those who routinely eat breakfast compared to those who don’t.

Conversely, a study conducted in Finland noted a link between breakfast habits and overall health, with breakfast-skippers more likely to smoke, drink alcohol and be sedentary. It’s not clear which is cause and which is effect, but I think it’s safe to say that eating breakfast, in and of itself, doesn’t automatically make us healthier. The real issue is that the breakfast habit seems to be one of several markers that indicate overall health. 

An especially intriguing, and often-cited,  study suggests that eating breakfast actually helps you live longer. The Alameda County Study, which started in California back in the 1960s, surveyed nearly 7,000 people in an effort to identify lifestyles that contributed to health and longer life spans. Among the researchers’ conclusions: Eating breakfast was one of the habits consistent with better health and was a predictor of longevity. Men in the study who ate breakfast and didn’t snack appeared to cut their risk of premature death. When the findings for 60- to 94-year-olds were further analyzed, eating breakfast emerged as a positive health factor that was as important as physical activity and avoiding tobacco.

So what’s the physiology behind breakfast? The first meal of the day – breaking one’s fast – helps rev up the metabolism and stabilize blood sugar levels. It also gives the body a jolt of fuel to replenish glycogen stores that deplete during the night.

Breakfast provides an extra daily chance as well for people to consume key nutrients such as calcium, protein and fiber. According to federal statistics, children who participated in the School Breakfast Program increased their intake of calcium and vitamins and were more likely to meet the daily nutrition recommendations for their age group.

With all this evidence, why do so many people continue to skip breakfast? I confess: I used to habitually avoid breakfast. My reasons were the same as most other people’s: didn’t have time, wasn’t hungry, didn’t want the extra calories.

This last excuse – the calorie-counting – seems to be pretty common. It’s also, according to much of the research, based on a fallacy. If you skip breakfast, chances are you’ll be hungry enough to start nibbling on snacks by mid-morning or having a large meal at noon, thus canceling out whatever calories you might have avoided.

The time factor, let’s face it, is very real in many households. I work around it by often preparing breakfast-type foods ahead of time. For instance, I now make my own granola. It can easily be done the night before or on the weekend. Homemade granola is simple to mix up, requiring no fancy culinary equipment or techniques. There are plenty of recipes to be found on the Internet; the one I use most often contains dried cherries and almonds. It’s very good with a couple of spoonfuls of plain yogurt or a splash of almond milk, and best of all, it’s both filling and nutritious.

One of my favorite go-to resources for healthful morning foods is “Sunlight Cafe.” The author, Mollie Katzen, is both a chef and nutrition expert, with many suggestions for turning breakfast into a great-tasting meal. A couple of weekends ago I turned to her book for a recipe for a hot cereal of millet cooked with orange juice and pecans. The grains take half an hour to cook, which sounds lengthy, but once the cereal is in the skillet it only needs to be stirred a couple of times at the 15-minute mark, leaving you free to dry your hair, put on your makeup, feed the cat, fold laundry or whatever.

Most basic cookbooks contain at least a few recipes for breakfast foods. The Internet, aided by Google, can put thousands of breakfast menus and ideas at your fingertips. If you want to keep it simple with a single information source as your Breakfast Central, check out Mr. Breakfast.com, an online place for all things breakfast-related. (Did you know January is National Oatmeal Month? Or that “how to boil an egg” is one of the Mr. Breakfast website’s top search terms?)

If you’ve been following the news, you may have noticed a new study that came out this week in Nutrition Journal. It seems to contradict the widely held belief that eating breakfast can help people control their calorie consumption the rest of the day. The researchers found that when their 380 study participants consumed a large breakfast, they also tended to rack up more daily calories overall. Reading more closely however, the key seems to lie not in the fact they ate breakfast but in what and how much they ate. In other words, calories and portion sizes still matter – but your mother also is still right about the benefits of a nutritious, balanced breakfast.

Image credits: Top: Wikimedia Commons; bottom: HealthBeat photo by Anne Polta; Logo: Troy Murphy, West Central Tribune

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