Is Your Breakfast Healthy?

Chances are your standard breakfast is somewhere along the lines of a bowl of breakfast cereals with milk, hot or cold, a glass of orange juice accompanied with a cup of tea or coffee, usually with sugar and milk. You are probably walking out of the house to work or school every day feeling smug about having been so healthy in your choices. Would you be surprised to hear that this breakfast is far from being a healthy choice?

If you are a Westerner who grew up in the USA or Europe, chances are your standard breakfast is somewhere along the lines of a bowl of breakfast cereals with milk, hot or cold, a glass of orange juice accompanied with a cup of tea or coffee, usually with sugar and milk.  Sound familiar? Your children’s breakfast is similar, if not the same, with the exception of the tea/ coffee.  Right?

You are probably walking out of the house to work or school every day feeling smug about having been so healthy in your choices, rather than having succumbed to some white toasts with butter and jam, or the ultimate breakfast sin: a slice of cake or a pastry loaded with sugar, butter and lots of calories.

Would you be surprised to hear that this breakfast is far from being a healthy choice? Personally I cannot even remember the last time I drank some juice, either for breakfast or at any other time of day, and nutritionists will agree that anything over one glass (100ml!) of juice per day are not to be counted towards your 5 a day (5 servings of fruit and vegetables per day), but simply as empty calories.

Juices aside, have you ever stopped to consider what is contained in those cereals you pour out of the box every morning? When was the last time you read the packet ingredients and nutritional properties? 

Puzzled by these remarks?  Read on and you might just discover a few truths hiding just under the surface of the so called healthy breakfast mix.

Why I don’t Drink Orange Juice

We all know oranges are a great source of Vitamin C which is necessary for many functions in our body including the formation and repair of body tissues, wound healing, the absorption of iron and to boost your immune system.  Unfortunately, Vitamin C is not water soluble and cannot be stored in the body, which means we need to keep taking it daily to prevent health problems.

The minimum dose needed by the body is 10mg per day to avoid scurvy of the bones. In Australia the RDI, or Recommended Daily Intake, is currently 45mg per day for healthy individuals.  This is the equivalent of one small orange or 100ml of pure orange juice.  This same orange contains 2.3mg of fibre. The 100ml of orange juice, on the other hand, only contains 0.2mg of fibre.  So immediately you notice the difference between the benefits of eating the whole fruit, rather than drinking the juice.  Remember that fibre not only helps you feel full faster, but it also helps you be regular, which in itself should be part of your morning routine!

But what is wrong with drinking the juice if you don’t have the time? Well one whole orange contains approximately 9g of sugar (fructose).  To fill a glass of orange juice you’ll need anywhere between 2 to 4 oranges depending on how big and juicy they are. That means that the 9g is multiplied by 2 to 4 and can become as much as 36g of sugar!  It also means that the calories consumed are much greater. In the case of pre-packed orange juice you are also more likely to serve yourself more than the 100ml.  Most people will have an average of 200ml to 300ml.  Do you see where I am going with this?  Not only, the orange juice you are drinking will very possibly not be pure and freshly squeezed with the pulp (the equivalent of the oranges you squeeze yourself) but it will be made with concentrate, which on average contains 19g of sugar per 100ml, and might have added sugar on top of that!

It is also worth noting that it takes about 15 to 23 oranges to make 1lt of pure orange juice. How long does it take you to consume that whole litre as a juice? Would you be able to eat 23 oranges in the same period of time? I thought not.  You’ll probably be full (or fed up!) long before that.

One final fact about the vitamin is that 23 oranges are roughly the equivalent of 1000mg of Vitamin C, or one tablet of Vitamin C supplements. But your body needs far less than that, and should get it from other sources of food throughout the day (eg other citrus fruits, kiwis, broccoli, kale, peppers, tomatoes….)not just from the morning juice.

There is also another thing to consider. That Vitamin C we talked about before. Did you read about the part where Vitamin C is needed to help the absorption of iron?  Let’s look at that in more detail.


Food Combinations that Don't Work

Students of Nutrition and Dietetics have to study medical textbooks which contain a few interesting facts that your G.P. has probably never mentioned.  There are whole sections dedicated to the correct and incorrect food combinations you need to be aware of to aid the absorption of important nutrients.

One such combination is vitamin C and Iron. You need these two in tandem for your body to effectively absorb the iron and Vitamin C.  So a steak followed by an orange might be considered a good combination.

However, milk and orange juice don’t go well together. The acid in the orange (present also in other fruits) combines with the protein in the milk causing the milk to curdle and turning it into a mucus forming substance which will hinder digestion and lead to malabsorption of any nutrients present in either food (calcium and vitamin C respectively).

Add to that the cup of coffee and it is even worse. The coffee interacts with the calcium in the milk to decrease the absorption of the latter. It is estimated that for every 150g caffeine , 5mg of calcium will be excreted in the urine.

Coffee and tea also both create a lining in the stomach which prevents the absorption of iron. So any iron supplements or iron rich foods should be consumed away from tea and coffee.

The same acids in the orange mentioned above destroy the enzymes responsible for digesting starches such as those found in oats and other cereals. So orange juice and cereals don’t mix well either!

So you see, combining the milk and orange juice and the tea or coffee is never a good idea. But what about the breakfast cereals? They’re healthy, right?


The Truth About Breakfast Cereals

Let me refer you once again to the information on the pack. The ingredients list of you breakfast cereals might astound you.  During a recent trip to the supermarket the exact same brand and package of breakfast cereals (a well known leading international brand) were sitting on the shelf side by side, the only difference was the location of the plant where they were produced. One was in the Middle East at 25g of sugar per 100g of cereal, compared to 15g of sugar per 100g of the same cereals produced in a country in Europe! This is the same brand, same cereal, same packaging, different production locations!! Whereas it is unusual to find this on the same shelf in the same supermarket, it pays to read labels! 

If you think the 25g of sugar per 100g of cereal is already a lot, bear in mind that some breakfast cereals available now at your local supermarket might contain as much as 35g of sugar and 23g of fat, of which 5.4g saturated fats, per 100 g.  Moreover, contrary to popular belief, the mueslis and high bran cereals are also the ones most likely to contain higher amounts of sugar, which is added to compensate for what the food industry considers the less than palatable taste otherwise. (Imagine chewing on the cardboard box to give you an idea of what they are referring to).

Reading down the list of ingredients you might also come across some other doubtful ingredients (eg artificial colourings, especially in children’s breakfast cereals) including salt. Why would you need to add salt to cereals? The cereal manufacturer’s explanation is very straightforward and simple. Using salt reduces the need for additional sugar. Put it this way and we might even have to thank them for turning a healthy food into a highly processed, high sugar, high salt food, fortified with vitamins and minerals which we might not even absorb due to the food combinations they themselves promote!


The History of Breakfast Cereals

While I was putting together all the information for this blog post I came across a very interesting article in the Food and Drink Industry section of a very reputable British newspaper (see further reading below), written by the writer of a book on why the food industry has created foods which are bad for our health.

In the article she outlines why off-the-shelf breakfast cereals are not healthy, going through the history of how they were created and with plenty of supporting evidence. Among other things she talks about how a US Congressional hearing as far back as the 1970s was told by Robert Choate (an adviser to President Nixon on nutrition) how breakfast cereals were not helping malnutrition through the use of fortification, as the producers claimed, but were only good to “fatten up” the population. He also criticised the aggressive targeting of children in advertising campaigns. Needless to say no action was taken.

She also notes that around 2005 when the Traffic Light System of labelling was being introduced by the British Government on food packaging to help people make healthier choices (red-amber-green to symbolise good-ok-bad), Kellogg’s introduced their own concept of labelling with recommended daily allowance guidelines which were far more generous than the official targets, especially when it came to the amount of sugar. According to Felicity Lawrence it was also the cereal industry that lobbied heavily against the British Government’s restrictions on advertising junk food to children.  Isn’t that enough to get your attention?


What should you be having for breakfast then?

Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) recommendations for a healthy breakfast are simple. Since breakfast is when you break the fast (break-fast) your body needs something soothing and filling. Prepare it by drinking some warm liquid, like green tea, and eat some cooked protein and carbohydrates for energy.  Avoid cold, uncooked foods. The ideal time is between 7 and 9am which is the time in the 12 hour clock in TCM where Stomach energy is at its peak, and is then followed by Spleen energy which will help fuel your body and energy for the rest of the day.

Examples of breakfasts could be cooked grains, or porridge, or even a warm soup.  Remember not to overdo it, though. You should not eat so much that you feel sluggish for the rest of the day.

Just remember the old Chinese saying: Breakfast like a King, lunch like a Prince, and dinner like a Pauper!

Ayurveda practitioners have similar recommendations. You need to heat the body and maintain a steady flow of energy to keep you going until lunch. Eating quick burning pastries (or breakfast cereals from a pack!) will not help that. Your sugar rush will be followed by a sudden drop in blood sugars which will require you to eat again soon afterwards. Have some chai, vegetables, cereals cooked with spices according to your doshas (body constitution), stewed fruits…

Healthy Breakfast Options

There is no reason why you should avoid cereals for breakfast. But serve them warm with good quality dairy-free (and sugar free!) milks such as almond, soy, oat or coconut milk and add some fresh fruit and spices to your bowl. Have some coffee or tea but don’t mix this with juices. Or have some eggs (boiled, scrambled, in an omelette…) with some vegetables and a piece of fruit. Add some nuts or seeds to your plate. 

Whatever you do, stay away from pre-packaged breakfast cereals. Make your own muesli by mixing different types of dried cereals with your own nuts, seeds and fruit, and cook your own rolled oats in the morning.

Perhaps grandma was right after all, porridge is indeed the best way to start the day!



Further reading:

-   “Eat Your Heart Out: Why the food business is bad for the planet and your health” by Felicity Lawrence, published by Penguin.

- “Drop that spoon! The truth about breakfast cereals”, Food and Drink Industry section of The Guardian online, By Felicity Lawrence, 23 November 2010.

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