My earliest memories of breakfast are of hot maize meal, called pap in Afrikaans, which was sweetened with copious amounts of sugar (when mom was not looking) and some milk to cool it down. Sometimes we would even be allowed to add butter. Without these additions it was a bitter pill to swallow. On special days we were treated with boxed cereals. In those days only Rice Krispies and Cornflakes ever made an appearance at our table. Boy did we celebrate when Fruit Loops eventually found its way into the monthly shopping trolley. When camping, we would be presented with a full fry-up of bacon, eggs and toast. This was the breakfast I always preferred.
An extended trip to Tokyo elucidated that there are cultures who do not differentiate between breakfast, lunch and dinner options. All food options are enjoyed at any time of the day. There I sampled sushi for breakfast and discovered what it felt like no to be bloated, agitated or even hungry before lunch was prepared. Our fixation on refined carbohydrate and sugar rich choices, especially at breakfast, is believed to be a major contributory factor in the increase of certain gut related disorders.
In my practice I see many people with grain and dairy intolerances who struggle with the thought that what is culturally accepted as normal eating is making them unwell. I emphasise the importance of variety at all meal times and breakfast should be no exception. So what are your options when commonly preferred cereal and dairy is taken off the menu?
First, let us consider what is deemed a balanced meal. Nutritionally all meals should include a good source of protein, unrefined carbohydrates, and vegetables to allow for the inclusion of a minimum of five-a-day. Protein is necessary for growth and repair, and plays an integral role in detoxification, immune response and hormone secretion.
Carbohydrates are needed for energy and especially to provide fuel for the brain. Since we no longer run in the plains to hunt for food (at most we now walk a short walk to any of the many coffee shops available in our immediate vicinity for that omnipresent latte and a muffin) the energy requirements for the average sedentary individual is no longer such that it needs a carbohydrate rich infusion first thing in the morning. Remember that glucose which is not utilised will be stored in the adipose tissue and since we rarely face a prolonged period of food shortage in the Western world, it is unlikely that stored energy will be utilised unless we increase our level of physical activity. Carbohydrate rich food that converts to sugar is the preferred food for bad bacteria, parasites and yeast found in the gut.
Vegetables and fruit count towards the government guidelines of five-a-day to meet our physiological need for fibre. People who choose a fibre-rich diet may reduce their risk of colorectal cancer, diverticulitis, diabetes and obesity, to name but a few. Insoluble fibre found in vegetables and fruit increases gut motility. Without regular bowel movements stagnant faecal matter is a breeding ground for unwanted pathogens in the large bowel. In my clinic I see many patients with intestinal parasites and undesired bacteria. The gastro-intestinal tract should be rife with good gut bacteria which is protective against pathogens. Constipated individuals find relief when adopting a diet which increases gut motility to eliminate many of the toxins that we are all at risk of accumulating.
So how does the average breakfast cereal with milk comply with the above-mentioned nutritional demands? Milk is a source of protein, provided it is consumed and not left in the breakfast bowl. However, when a person is dairy sensitive consumption can exacerbate many presenting symptoms of ill health of which some include eczema, sinusitis, itchy skin and fluid build up in the ears. It is postulated that the incidence of Coeliac Disease is on the increase. That means more people are to avoid gluten containing grains to ameliorate symptoms. So what is left to enjoy as the first meal of the day when dairy and gluten containing grains are to be avoided?
Gluten free porridge oats made with water is a good starting point and is not wildly contrary to traditional options. Add raw, unsalted nuts and seeds for protein and fruit, such as berries, apple, banana to provide fibre. The old classic weekend fry-up with sugar free baked beans, grilled tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers, hash browns made with potato only, and lean bacon provides all the macro nutrients. Another good breakfast option is buckwheat pancakes with fresh vegetables and protein choices which include sardines, mackerel, legumes, or chickpeas. If you are not goat milk sensitive then a light breakfast option of goat’s yoghurt with fresh fruit and added sunflower and linseeds is a nutrient dense option. I rather enjoy an egg omelette with a variety of fresh vegetables as an additional choice.
If you remember that many cultures eat our traditional lunch and evening choices at breakfast as well, your options are multiplied. Breakfast in Costa Rica includes black beans and rice which is complimented with avocado, fried ripe plantain and an assortment of cold meats. The Egyptians traditionally favour cooked fava beans with olive oil, lemon juice and garlic. In the Philippines choices can include roast suckling pig with fried rice. Perhaps a good start to a cold autumn morning would be a lentil soup. For those individuals who do physically demanding work, a hearty beef soup with added vegetables could keep those mid morning hunger pangs at bay.
With the rise in obesity, cardiovascular health, gastro-intestinal upset and diabetes, it is imperative that we venture beyond our comfort zones and explore with nutrient dense breakfast options to minimise our need for medicinal intervention. This not only puts a burden on the National Health Service but robs us of a lifestyle of enjoyed good health. Being unwell puts an enormous strain on the daily demands modern life imposes on us and if good breakfast choices can be a starting point in addressing ill health, how could we possibly justify ignoring such a small step with enormous potential positive outcome.
This article was published in Positive Health On-Line Magazine in 2010