My early morning trek to the gym takes me past a Dunkin Donut shop and a long line of sleepy commuters waiting to buy breakfast. The shelves of this franchise coffee shop are stocked with varieties of doughnuts, muffins, bagels and breakfast sandwiches of an egg with cheese and fatty meat. As I continue down the block, people are standing in long lines at MacDonald’s so they can eat a hot meal of scrambled egg and hashbrowned potatoes, or cream saturated oatmeal, pancakes and syrup, or egg, ham and cheese breakfast sandwiches, along with their coffee. Two blocks away, an up-scale neighborhood bakery-coffee shop sells fatty, chocolate filled croissants or butter laden, gigantic cranberry scones and gourmet coffee to people working at a nearby hospital. And at a convenience store across the street from my gym, high school students filter in to buy a bottle of soda and bag of Doritos to eat on the way to school.
Nutritionists tell us (and in the interests of full disclosure, I have written about this myself) that breakfast is the most important meal of the day or at the very least, just as important as lunch and dinner. “Start the day off right,” or “Fuel your body, ” or “Don’t eat breakfast and you will overeat later on,” are just a few of the Eat Breakfast mantras sent in our direction for several decades. Yet is it possible that eating breakfast may not be beneficial? Is it possible that breakfast may be contributing unnecessary calories without contributing necessary nutrients? Could it be that eating breakfast might actually put us back to sleep rather than activating our cognitive centers and mental acuity? Can breakfast be bad for us?
Of course the answer is that it depends on what is eaten. As I pointed out in a book written many years ago (Managing Your Mind and Mood Through Food), your brain needs protein in the morning which can and should be supplied by breakfast, if only to set you up for success.
The two brain chemicals involved in thinking quickly and sharply (dopamine and norepinephrine) are made when the amino acid tyrosine is eaten. Tyrosine is found in protein, and when these two brain chemicals are in short supply, eating protein will activate their synthesis. Presumably anyone going off to a job or school requiring some thinking and mental responsiveness would benefit from a breakfast containing protein.
Carbohydrates tend to make people feel calm and mellow; and fat goes further in this behavioral direction and leaves the eater dull and tired. Although these feelings might be appropriate as a prelude to sleep, this is not the way we want to feel early in the morning as we set out to face the obligations of the day. Do we really want a surgeon, teacher or airline pilot to eat a breakfast of sugary doughnuts fried in fat, buttery croissants, or pancakes drenched in butter and syrup? Should we with lesser, but nevertheless important, jobs be eating these foods?
We know that a functioning digestive system needs fiber and water. Fast food breakfast menus rarely if ever feature high fiber cereals or breads. Do any people order a large cup of water along with their coffee? Might the digestive problems constantly talked about in television advertisements be caused, at least in part, by dehydrated morning folk who don’t drink enough fluids or eat enough fiber?
Those who eschew dairy products such as milk and cottage cheese often suffer from lactose deficiency. They will rarely find lactose-free milk for their coffee, and dieters who want fat free yogurt will have to settle for the full fat variety in the few coffee shops and fast food chains that carry that product. Want cottage cheese? Better bring it from home. But if you want your morning dairy food to be whipped cream, you need only go to your local Starbucks or fast food chain to find it on top of a sugary syrup and chocolate filled coffee drink, a nutriotional wasteland.
Fruit cups, sold everywhere, may compensate somewhat for the nutritional limitations of take-out breakfasts. But do they? Regardless of season and state in which they are sold, most fruit cups contain the same variety of fruit: chunks of cantaloupe and honey dew, a few grapes, one sliced strawberry and three blueberries. High vitamin C fruits like oranges and grapefruits are rarely included, and the high fiber blueberries and strawberries are provided in miniscule amounts even when the supermarkets are filled with them. Are they mass-produced in a factory somewhere or is the selection of fruits based on their resilience to being turned into mush if the cup is stuffed into the bottom of a knapsack?
It strikes me that a lack of time is usually the reason breakfast is purchased rather than eaten at home before leaving for work. But how much time is actually saved by purchasing breakfast? The ten minutes standing in line to order and pay for coffee and bagel at Dunkin Doughnut could be spent at home eating a container of yogurt with fresh blueberies or bowl of high fiber cereal, milk and banana . The ten minutes it takes to order, pay and receive the egg or pancake platter at MacDonald’s is more time that it takes to scramble an egg and toast an English muffin at home. Buying cut up fresh or frozen fruit and plastic cups in the supermarket and spending a minute making a fruit cup at home may take more time but at least you get to choose the fruit rather than someone in a factory.
Not hungry early in the morning? Bring breakfast foods with you to eat later on in the morning. Bring single size servings of yogurt and cottage cheese and fruit to work or school. Keep a bowl and spoon in your desk drawer along with a box of high fiber cereal. Store milk and fruit ( not bananas) in the office refrigerator, or put blueberries in a sandwich bag in the freezer to add to the cereal. Another option is to make your own breakfast sandwich on whole grain bread with soft low calorie cheese like Laughing Cow and lean breakfast meat. And make sure to drink water even if you are not hungry. Your body needs to be rehydrated after a night of slumber.
The right breakfast foods will not only nourish your body, they will have a positive effect on your ability to concentrate and think rapidly. So instead of standing in line for ten minutes to get your morning coffee, stand in your kitchen and eat breakfast there or take it with you to work. Your brain and body will thank you.