Usually when someone offers you something for “free”, they’re trying to sell you a timeshare. However, after a couple long recording sessions, some script wrangling, and several weeks, they’ve just sent me a link to their newest video visualization—based in part on my classic article “Why You’re Addicted To Bread”, and featuring narration by me!
It’s intended for a general audience, so it’s a bit of an oversimplification—but it’s a great start for when your Uncle Ned asks you “So why won’t you eat bread anymore?” So I encourage my readers to visit the Youtube page, drop a “Like” and/or a favorable comment, and spread it amongst your bread-eating friends. (Hint: share it on Facebook using the widget below.)
Bonus Video: Nose To Tail Eating With Big Primal and Primal North
Technically “breakfast” is your first meal of the day, whenever that is…but here I’ll use it in the popular sense of “a morning meal, eaten soon after waking”.
Our Paleolithic evolutionary context didn’t include artificial lighting—let alone late-night restaurants like Denny’s and Taco Bell. Humans can’t see well enough to hunt or forage in the dark, and even preparing food is relatively difficult (try cooking entirely by firelight sometime).
Furthermore, our Paleolithic evolutionary context doesn’t include chicken coops, granaries, dairy herds, or root cellars.
Therefore, it’s a reasonable assumption that our ancestors ate most of their food in the afternoon or evening. Game had to be found, hunted, killed, butchered, and usually cooked. Tubers and vegetables had to be found, dug, gathered, and prepared. So any “breakfast” eaten by hunter-gatherers would most likely have been leftovers from the night before—if they were lucky enough to have any.
For example, here’s a delicious Hadza “breakfast” of burnt monkey parts (skip to 1:35, or 0:45 for a demonstration of fire making):
It seems very likely that “breakfast” is a Neolithic invention—the creation of sedentary agriculturalists. No one knows the exact timing and size of meals in different agricultural societies throughout history, and I don’t put much stock in what passes for historical accounts…but it’s clear that we’re not going to reliably have food to eat soon after awakening unless we’ve got domesticated animals, or a storehouse of previously harvested and prepared grains or tubers. (Consider also the effort and cost of starting a cooking fire every morning, in addition to every evening.)
In support of this theory, I note that all of the traditional “breakfast” foods are from domesticated animals and traditional food crops. Eggs from chickens; bacon, sausage, and ham from pigs; milk from cows; oatmeal and toast and grits and porridge and hash browns. Red meat is infrequently eaten, and it’s considered unorthodox (or decadent) to eat hunted game like duck or venison for breakfast.
The Modern “Breakfast”: An Invention Of The Rich
As opposed to the leisurely life of hunter-gatherers, which usually involves dramatically less work than ours (the complete essay,the book, further discussion), farming is labor-intensive, and it usually starts at dawn with the rooster—so it’s not surprising that people would want to fuel up before beginning a long day of hard work. Historically, farmers seem to have eaten whatever food they had available: usually some sort of gruel, porridge, bread, grits, or previously cooked tuber…perhaps with meat if they were rich enough to keep animals, which most weren’t.
Keep in mind that most farmers throughout history were essentially slaves to their landowner, usually the king (cf. “serf”), if they weren’t explicitly enslaved. See the nomenclature in the Domesday Book: only the king could own property, and everyone else simply held it “of the King”.
(Much like all modern systems of government, in which “ownership” is merely the privilege of paying the government below-market rent in the form of property tax. But I digress.)
It gets worse. Early agricultural civilizations, all the way through Mycenean Greece, were, without exception, palace economies—systems in which everything anyone produced belonged to the god-king, and was taken from them and redistributed by the god-king’s representatives through the palace. Palace economies make North Korea look like a block party. (Further reading.)
In summary, the modern Western conception of the gentleman farmer and his family—owning their own land, keeping chickens, pigs, and a few cattle in addition to growing crops, living comfortably—has little precedent in history.
The modern American breakfast of bacon or sausage, eggs, toast, and hash browns is basically a variant of the full English breakfast—a creation of the British upper classes in the 1800s, which spread as lower strata of society became prosperous enough to afford it.
“To eat well in England, you should have a breakfast three times a day.” -William Maugham
Recap: “Breakfast” Isn’t What You Think It Is
Hunter-gatherers most likely ate breakfast infrequently, if at all. When they did, it was leftovers.
Farmers ate whatever they had, because they were performing hard physical labor all day.
The upper classes ate meat and eggs because they could, and modern Westerners eat it because we’re all rich by historical standards.
Science > Re-Enactment…But We Must Start Somewhere
It’s important to note that our eating habits shouldn’t be dictated by an attempt to re-enact the Paleolithic (an impossible task): they should be dictated by our biochemistry and controlled, randomized trials. However, since we all have to eat something while waiting for the trials to finish, and we must choose some point of departure for constructing our theories, I choose our multi-million year evolutionary history as hunters and foragers—not a few thousand years of agriculture, or less than one hundred years of industrial products like ‘vegetable oil’.
My conclusion: since the Paleolithic is our evolutionary context, humans are most likely well adapted to not eating breakfast at all. Are you really all that hungry when you wake up—or are you eating because you think you’re supposed to?
Is Breakfast Really The Most Important Meal?
Like many homilies and pieces of pseudo-medical advice, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” isn’t based on any evidence: it’s spoken by Gregor Samsa’s father in Kafka’s “Metamorphosis”.
“Drink eight glasses of water every day” is another piece of scientific-sounding advice with no basis in fact…but that’s another article for another time.
The Full English, or its American variants, are indeed a creation of the rich—but they at least have the benefit of being nutritionally complete and mostly made of real food. Skip the toast, cook your eggs and hash browns in butter or coconut oil, and you won’t be hungry again for a long time, maybe even dinner. Same with a 3-egg omelet and other American diner fare, like steak and eggs.
But that’s not what people eat anymore. Few of us have time to fix such elaborate fare in the morning—and if we did, we simply aren’t hungry enough to eat it so soon after awakening.
What do we eat now, for breakfast?
Dessert and snacks.
Let’s look at today’s typical breakfast foods:
Pancakes with syrup, donuts, cinnamon rolls, “breakfast danishes”: Those aren’t foods, they’re desserts.
Bagel, toast, muffin, English muffin: giant balls of “carbs”, i.e. chewy, crunchy sugar. Did you know that bread—even “heart-healthy” whole-wheat bread—has the same glycemic index as Skittles?
Cold cereal: like bread, it hits your bloodstream even faster than white sugar. Yes, even Grape-Nuts and all those “healthy”, “high-fiber” cereals that taste like ground-up twigs…adding white sugar to your cereal actually drops the GI!
Orange juice, all fruit juices: liquid fructose. Basically a soda with some vitamin C. Have you ever seen how many oranges it takes to make a glass of orange juice?
Oatmeal: a bit of incomplete protein and lots of ‘carbs’ (sugar). Do you eat plain oatmeal? Really?
Why do we crave the empty calories of bread? Answer: for the same reasons we crave the empty calories of candy.
Bread = Skittles
I’ve made the point before that bread—even whole wheat bread—is metabolically equivalent to Skittles, because it has the same glycemic index. You get the same sugar rush from a ‘healthy’ whole wheat bagel that you do from candy…and though it might not taste as sweet, it’s all the same to your digestive and metabolic system.
Whole-grain bagel: 280-350 calories, glycemic index 72.
A short layman’s explanation for those unfamiliar with food chemistry: “proteins” are just amino acids linked together in chains, and “carbohydrates” are just simple sugars (glucose, fructose, galactose) linked together in chains. When a carbohydrate is small (two simple sugars) and tastes sweet, we call it “sugar”—and when a carbohydrate is big (many simple sugars) and doesn’t taste sweet, we call it “starch”. But it’s all the same thing: “carbs” are just sugar, and your body breaks them all down into simple sugars before using them.
“Glycemic index” is a measure of how quickly the sugar in a food (including starch and other “carbohydrates”) appears in our bloodstream, fully disassembled, after we eat it. The higher the glycemic index, the quicker the sugar hit.
Note that white rice has a higher glycemic index (64) than Coca-Cola (58), and ‘healthy’ breakfast cereals like cornflakes (81) and Grape Nuts (71) have a higher glycemic index than a Snickers bar (55)! Read this list of 100 common foods: you’ll be surprised at which “healthy” foods are really just sugar bombs.
Interestingly, there is no special dietary name for short proteins: they’re all just called “protein”.
(A giant table of glycemic index for thousands of foods can be found here.)
Eating Like Cattle, Getting Fat Like Cattle
We are told to eat lots of ‘carbohydrates’ (sugars) in small meals throughout the day, as recommended by the nutrition industry (the ADA, most Western governments, and other wholly-owned subsidiaries of multinational agribusinesses and drug companies). In other words, we are told to graze—like cattle.
Grazing like a cow means that your bloodstream is always full of sugar. Glucose (a simple sugar) is our body’s primary energy source, and our bodies will always use it first if there is any available. We only start metabolizing fat for energy when there is no sugar left.
Unfortunately, by maintaining such a diet, our ability to metabolize body fat simply atrophies—because it’s never used! This is why dieters feel so desperately hungry, and why it’s hard to reduce ‘carbohydrate’ (= sugar) intake: we’ve got plenty of energy available in the form of body fat, but our body’s ability to metabolize it has atrophied—so we are metabolically starving in the midst of plenty. It’s like having a pantry full of canned tuna and discovering you’ve lost the can opener.
In the scientific literature, the ability to switch back and forth between glycolysis (burning sugar) and beta-oxidation (burning fat) is called “metabolic flexibility“. And while the above paragraph is simplified to avoid dragging my readers into biochemistry, the adventurous can venture here:
This is the metabolic component of sugar (‘carbohydrate’) addiction.
(See this short cartoon for Tom Naughton’s entertaining layman’s guide to this metabolic catastrophe, which includes Type II diabetes in its end stages. I also recommend watching his full presentation “Big Fat Fiasco”, also available on DVD here.)
The Sugar Rush: Chasing Serotonin and Dopamine
There is a second component to sugar addiction: not only are sugars (‘carbohydrates’) metabolically addictive, they are most likely physically addictive too. Here’s how that works. (You can skip to the summary below if you’re not interested in the details.)
“Carbohydrates, when digested by the body, are effectively broken down into sugar molecules. When these molecules are absorbed and released in the bloodstream, blood concentration of glucose increases. Almost immediately, there will be a significant increase in plasma insulin levels as a result of the pancreas releasing its stored insulin. Insulin then steps in to do what it is genetically programmed to do–it breaks it down some more to produce energy and transport the extra glucose from the blood to the body cells. Insulin also makes it easy for tryptophan to enter the brain by eliminating its other amino acid competitors.”
“The concentration of the majority of the amino acids, including alanine and glutamine, are significantly reduced each time insulin is secreted. Tryptophan is then able to enter the brain at a higher rate. An increased level of tryptophan in the brain means more available tryptophan for conversion. Tryptophan undergoes hydroxylation to the 5 positions and is converted in 5-HT and eventually to serotonin.” -“Why Carbohydrates Instantly Increase Serotonin Levels”
In summary: sugar (carbohydrates) boosts brain tryptophan levels, which makes us sleepy. This tryptophan boost increases brain serotonin levels over time, which makes us feel content and satiated (“food coma”). Furthermore, the immediate reward of eating palatable food is a dopamine rush: the same neurotransmitter behind drug highs like cocaine and amphetamine.
(In case you’re not familiar with serotonin: you’ll note that the common antidepressants (Prozac, Zoloft, etc.) are all SSRIs—selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors—which boost serotonin by blocking the body’s ability to reabsorb it.)
The problem is that, like any other addictive drug, the positive effects of bread (and other high-sugar foods) diminish over time—while the addiction remains.
“Results indicated that women who gained weight over a 6 month period showed a reduction in striatal response to palatable food consumption relative to weight-stable women. Collectively, results suggest that low sensitivity of reward circuitry increases risk for overeating and that this overeating may further attenuate responsivity of reward circuitry in a feedforward process.”
Rephrased in simple language: the fatter you get, the less of a good feeling you get from eating tasty foods. (And here’s some rat science on striatal dopamine receptors, for those curious about the mechanisms.)
So we eat more and more ‘carbs’ (sugar) in an effort to recreate that dopamine rush and subsequent serotonin contentment…but as we gain weight, we get less and less of that reward. All we get is the sugar spike and subsequent metabolic crash.
Interestingly, alcohol apparently has a similar mechanism of addiction: it increases serotonin nerve activity, but depletes actual brain serotonin. See: Adv Exp Med Biol. 1999;467:265-74. Tryptophan metabolism in alcoholism. Badawy AA. And it is perhaps not a coincidence that women with a family history of alcoholism are more likely to be obese.
“…Carbohydrate consumption is relevant for individuals experiencing symptoms of emotional distress, particularly symptoms indicative of depression, and that the individuals with depressive symptoms show a preference for sweet simple carbohydrates.”
In summary, carbohydrates are addictive in two ways, both factually established:
First, because they’re really just sugar, and we get the same sugar rush from bread that we get from candy.
Second, because sugar pumps up dopamine and serotonin levels in the short-term—but, like any addictive drug, the reward diminishes over time, while the compulsion to eat ‘carbohydrates’ (sugar) remains.
Breaking Our Bread Addiction
So how do we break our bread addiction?
There is good news! My experience, and that of most people attempting a paleo diet (which is ‘low-carb’, or low-sugar, by definition, unless you’re making a concerted effort to eat potatoes), is that you can indeed regain your ability to burn body fat for energy—and once you’re ingesting enough protein and B vitamins, your serotonin levels won’t be completely dependent on eating sugar. (Eat more meat and eggs.) The relentless sugar cravings slowly dissipate over a couple weeks.
You’ll find that not only do you not crave huge piles of empty sugar calories (bread, pasta, potatoes) with meals—as a bonus, you’ll find that it’s suddenly much easier to go without food entirely, because your body is learning how to burn fat again! You’ll be able to skip a meal without feeling like you’re going to die of hunger…and you’ll also discover that being a little bit hungry substantially boosts your mental capacities due to the action of ghrelin, once you’re no longer distracted by hunger pangs.
Though I can’t find any human studies (since it’s difficult to measure brain tryptophan and serotonin levels without dissecting the brain), there is suggestive evidence from animal studies that fasting raises brain serotonin:
There are still unanswered questions here: how long do we have to go between meals to produce a rise in serotonin? (It might happen after an hour, three hours, or twenty hours.) Is abstaining from sugars (‘carbs’) sufficient, or must one fast altogether? More research is needed here: if you know of any that I’ve missed, please leave a comment.
My non-scientific advice is: don’t try to go cold turkey, but do make a strong effort to replace sugars (‘carbs’) with real food whenever you can. Cook bacon and eggs for breakfast, grab hard-boiled eggs or dinner leftovers if you’re on the go, and if you must have that piece of buttered toast, go for it—because it’s still infinitely more satisfying and nutritious than a breakfast of cold cereal or a bagel. It’s better to be happy and calm than a stressed-out diet purist. But as you slowly reduce your sugar intake, you’ll find that you miss candy (and its metabolic equivalent, bread) less and less…
…and you’ll enjoy life more and more without your sugar (‘carbohydrate’) addiction.
Postscript: Paleo Is Not Atkins, Nor Is It Zero-Carb
The paleo diet is not Atkins, nor is it zero-carb. The best research I can find shows that modern hunter-gatherers get perhaps 1/3 of their calories from carbohydrate, and Paleolithic hunter-gatherers somewhat less. This means vegetables, including root starches like sweet potatoes: grains were not a meaningful part of the human diet until agriculture, of which the earliest evidence is only 12,000 years ago. (This is a tautology: agriculture defines the transition from Paleolithic to Neolithic.)
“In this review we have analyzed the 13 known quantitative dietary studies of hunter-gatherers and demonstrate that animal food actually provided the dominant (65%) energy source, while gathered plant foods comprised the remainder (35%).” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2002 Mar;56 Suppl 1:S42-52. The paradoxical nature of hunter-gatherer diets: meat-based, yet non-atherogenic. Cordain L, Eaton SB, Miller JB, Mann N, Hill K.
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