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Why you're getting breakfast all wrong, and what health experts do instead

May 04, 2023May 04, 2023

Our nation might be known around the world for the "full English", but very few of us have the time, funds, or appetite to linger daily over a plate of eggs, bacon, black pudding and sausages (or any food at all for that matter, with lots of people eating on the go or at their desk).

Some extol the virtues of fasting till noon – a 2020 study of over 2,000 people found one fifth of Brits are skipping breakfast – ignoring the old adage that we should breakfast like kings in order to maintain good health.

For those who do enjoy a meal first thing, Mintel's 2022 market report into UK Breakfast Eating Habits found that convenience is important, but so is health. Millions of households sit down to cereal, muesli, granola, yoghurt and toast each morning.

So how do we know we’re making the right choices? Even a glass of juice can cause controversy (according to the Great British Breakfast survey, 85 per cent of breakfasters have a glass). Recently, former chancellor George Osborne suggested the existing soft-drink sugar tax be extended to include juice, because our daily consumption of liquidised fruit is contributing to rocketing sugar intake, with the knock-on consequence of higher rates of obesity.

What's more, many popular breakfast foods – such as cereal, sliced bread, jam and even smoothies – are UPFs (ultra-processed foods), which experts now say we should be trying to eat less of, as they are being linked to a host of ailments. So where does this leave our beloved breakfast? Should we be ditching it altogether or making different choices in the supermarket?

Many people settle on cereal – 86 per cent of Brits, according to Mintel – but watching his daughter delight in her first bowl of Coco Pops made Dr Chris van Tulleken, author of Ultra-Processed People: Why Do We All Eat Stuff That Isn't Food, think of a smoker who can't stop at one cigarette.

He argues that so much of what we choose to eat is not a personal choice but one fed to us by marketing. He didn't think his daughter would be interested in Coco Pops as she’d never seen or been offered them, but the marketing brains making cereal appealing are way ahead of the average parent, even a doctor like him.

Coco the Monkey has appeared on boxes of Coco Pops since the 80s to win children's hearts, minds and stomachs. Kellogg's first introduced Corn Flakes and All Bran to the UK in 1922, with Rice Krispies following in 1928 and Frosties, Special K and Coco Pops following in the 50s.

By the 80s, with more women in the workplace and all kinds of fats demonised in favour of cereals, a bowl of crunchy flakes or puffed rice was sold as the go-to breakfast. Campaigns like the Special K diet in the early 2000s sold cereal as a healthy alternative to a cooked breakfast.

Meanwhile, manufacturers are always looking to increase profits, searching for new and cheaper ways to bring us the same foods, hence the march of ultra-processing in cereals (In short, if something is wrapped in plastic and contains an ingredient not commonly found in your kitchen, call it a UPF).

Some 60 per cent of calories in modern diets come from UPFs and, unsurprisingly, the vast majority of cereals are UPFs. Van Tulleken believes these foods are the cause of much modern illness and our current obesity crisis – he considers them far worse than naturally-occurring sugars or simply eating too much breakfast – so we should be trying to wean ourselves off them where possible.

Yet for many people, cereal is a convenient and affordable breakfast: the Food Foundation found that the UK's poorest 50 per cent of households would need to spend 30 per cent of their disposable income on food to eat according to our national healthy eating guidelines, while the poorest 10 per cent would need to up that to almost 75 per cent.

Genetics professor and gut health expert Tim Spector, author of The Diet Myth and Food for Life, has given up cereal, as well as porridge and muesli with nuts and seeds, both of which made his glucose levels spike. Don't panic though – oats and muesli affect an individual's blood sugar differently.

Spector began to test his reaction for his Zoe health study, and discovered an "exaggerated response". However, for most people, he says, a sugar spike is "a little hump". This means that oats and some low-sugar and minimally processed muesli and other cereals could be fine to eat, but always check the label for sugar and other additives.

Van Tulleken points out that products such as Alpen, sold as "naturally wholesome", and Crunchy Nut Clusters – "no artificial colours or flavours" – are still ultra-processed foods.

What does Spector eat himself? His first meal of the day is at 11.30am when he eats some yoghurt kefir, blueberries with nuts and seeds, and a black coffee.

What about something like bread and jam? It famously works for the French. Nutritionist Sonal Shah has a reassuringly balanced approach, pointing out that wholegrain bread can be a good source of fibre and carbohydrate, and that it's possible to find jams with no added sugar – recommending the brand St Dalfour, which is available in most supermarkets (it's the one in the tall, slim jars).

"But maybe think about a topping with more protein to make it more satiating, instead of just butter," she says. "Eggs, nut butter, or even Philadelphia would make it a bit more nutritious."

Van Tulleken says that ultimately the best choices should always be about accessing more "real food": whole foods, where possible prepared at home: think eggs, oats, plain yoghurt, chopped fruits (ideally not juiced or blended, as fibre and goodness are lost, see below)

Juice can seem an unlikely scapegoat in the conversation about healthy eating because fruit is natural, right? Orange juice is a great source of vitamin C as well as potassium and vitamin B, and counts as one of the at-least-five portions of fruit and veg a day that Public Health England recommends we consume.

But juice is also packed with sugar, around 13g or almost three teaspoons in the recommended 150ml serving, and juicing strips the fruit of nearly all its fibre. According to Spector, juice is just as bad for us as Diet Coke.

Shah has a more measured approach: "For me it's more about portion sizes. It's OK to have a glass here or there, but it isn't the healthiest thing to eat unless it's fresh. We also have to think about dental decay. Food manufacturers are getting around the sugar tax by reducing sugar but adding in artificial sweeteners."

I’m not surprised to learn that Gwyneth Paltrow's gut health expert, Will Cole, delays breakfast until 11.30am, like Spector. When he does start eating, Cole feasts on chicken, quinoa, beans and veg followed by a smoothie of fruit, greens, protein powders and perhaps some avocado. So should we be delaying or skipping breakfast altogether?

Shah isn't a fan of fasting. "Definitely don't skip breakfast," she says, "even if you delay it until 11am. Research shows that if we skip a meal in the morning, we are more likely to eat more later on to make up the calorie deficit." Breakfast-skippers also reach for less healthy food throughout the day, ending up with diets that, overall, are higher in fat and calories.

"It's really interesting seeing all the studies around fasting and potential benefits," says Aisling Pigott of the British Dietetic Association. "But it's not something I recommend as I feel it encourages more restriction of food and a less healthy attitude". She says ultimately people should "eat at whatever time suits you".

I like the idea of looking at a colourful fruit bowl sprinkled with protein and cacao and maca powders, but have no intention of taking out a second mortgage for my Whole Foods shop. Indeed Pigott says the problem is that balanced meals don't fit everyone's budget.

Instead, she suggests a breakfast made up of "wholegrain bread with peanut butter and an apple or banana, or porridge oats with seeds or nuts and/or fruit". To keep it interesting, "change things up at the weekend with eggs and beans on wholegrain toast." Shah recommends starting the day with something more hydrating than coffee, which is a diuretic – perhaps water or herbal tea – saving the coffee for when you eat.

Make overnight oats by soaking your porridge oats in yoghurt or milk before you go to bed and adding fruit, nuts and seeds in the morning. Shah also suggests eating with the seasons: we might need more carb-heavy substantial breakfasts throughout the winter – think porridge with nut butter or eggs and avocado on wholegrain or sourdough – but as we move towards the light and heat of summer maybe yoghurt, fruit and home-made smoothies will suffice.

How does my go-to speedy breakfast measure up? I often grab rice cakes with peanut butter, balancing fat, protein and slightly naughty white carbs. But as with the orange juice, Shah points out, this choice lacks fibre.

I wonder if the bones of the full English, though perhaps not in "full" every morning, would make for a better breakfast than our continental, carb-heavy choices? "The traditional fry-up can be quite balanced with protein, fat and carbs," says Shah. "You could have one slice of toast, a sausage, some good-quality eggs, mushroom, tomato and perhaps spinach. [And] it's not always about what we’re eating, but how we cook it. We could have a boiled or poached egg instead of frying it in oil."

In recent years, the dangers of the nitrites used to preserve bacon and other cured pork products have been reported. More than 90 per cent of the bacon sold in the UK contains nitrates, which have been linked to bowel, breast and prostate cancer. While some doctors and politicians have called for a ban – on nitrites, not bacon! – others have recommended cutting back. It looks like younger generations are eating less bacon anyway, with 10 per cent fewer millennials eating it regularly compared to baby-boomers.

Pigott notes that the presentation of breakfast foods on social media can be an additional factor in affecting how we eat. She says elaborate or expensive breakfasts can discourage people from eating, and giving people reasons to skip meals encourages diet culture.

"We tend to go in and demonise certain foods," she adds, "but when we automatically categorise food as good or bad, some of our built-in self regulation gets lost. That's where we see behaviours around restriction and bingeing creep in, associating food with morality."

So go with what feels right for you – but remember that the easiest option might just be one that has been marketed successfully. Perhaps the strangest thing about our first meal of the day is that so many of us eat exactly the same every single morning – something we would find odd if done for dinner.

While nutritionists and dietitians call for balance within each meal, I’m going to aim for a little variety from one day to the next.

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