In Part 1 of "The Breakfast Myth", we discussed why the modern “breakfast” is really just snacks and dessert—and why eating it at all might be evolutionarily discordant. Here in Part 2, we explore the scientific evidence for and against breakfast—and what we should do in response.
But first, a short and entertaining detour!
The Shocking Origins Of Breakfast Cereal
We’ve already established that breakfast cereals are the nutritional equivalent of candy—but how were we bamboozled into eating expensive empty calories? Surprisingly, cereal wasn’t originally a cynical marketing ploy to sell sugar to children. Felicity Lawrence, a British journalist, investigates:
“Prepackaged and ready-to-eat breakfast cereals began with the American temperance movement in the 19th century. In the 1830s, the Reverend Sylvester Graham preached the virtues of a vegetarian diet to his congregation, and in particular the importance of wholemeal flour. Meat-eating, he said, excited the carnal passions.“
“After Jackson’s invention, the Seventh-Day Adventists took up the mission. […] John Harvey Kellogg…set about devising cures for what he believed were the common ills of the day, in particular constipation and masturbation. In Kellogg’s mind, the two were closely linked, the common cause being a lack of fibre, both dietary and moral.
Kellogg experimented in the sanitarium kitchen to produce an easily digested form of cereal. Together with his wife and his younger brother, William Keith, he came up with his own highly profitable Granula, but was promptly sued by Jackson, the original maker of Granula, and had to change the name to Granola.”
And there is hope yet: “Sales of ready-to-eat cereals fell 2.55% in the 52 weeks ending April 17 to $6.41 billion…Sales and units shipped have been lackluster since at least 2007, predating the Global Recession and the recent rise in grain prices. […] Much to the horror of nutritionists, the popularity of egg-based breakfast sandwiches is surging.” -Breakfast Cereals Americans No Longer Love
Our Bodies Already Feed Us In The Morning
Fasting is a high-fat meal…of your own adipose tissue. Remember, every diet is a high-fat diet, because if you’re losing weight, you’re burning your own fat. And fat-burning is most intense in the morning, because we haven’t eaten all night. So when we wake up, we’re already eating a steady diet…of fat.
Furthermore, our bodies give us a shot of cortisol in the morning, as we wake up. Cortisol increases gluconeogenesis (the process by which our liver creates glucose), so that we can maintain normal blood sugar when we’re not eating any. First, it seems unlikely that we’d evolve this metabolic pattern if we usually had access to food right after waking up.
Most importantly, morning cortisol explains why we’re not hungry immediately upon waking: not only are we already burning our own fat for energy, our liver has already gone to work making glucose for us!
Here’s the problem: most of us are in a rush to get to school or work, and we can’t just wait around the house for a few hours until we finally get hungry. But we’re told over and over that breakfast is the most important meal of the day! We’re supposed to eat something…
And that’s why modern “breakfast food” is snacks and sugary junk: it’s all we can force ourselves to eat when we’re not hungry.
Consider “heart-healthy” oatmeal for a moment: do you eat it plain? No, you put sugar in it, and usually fruit.
In other words, it’s a bowl of liquid cookies. Would you eat oatmeal cookies for breakfast?
The Science Of Breakfast: Programming Our Metabolism For The Day
Yes, this is a mouse study…but its conclusions are very, very interesting, and they are consonant with human studies.
“We report that mice fed either low- or high-fat diets in a contiguous manner during the 12 h awake/active period adjust both food intake and energy expenditure appropriately, such that metabolic parameters are maintained within a normal physiologic range.”
In other words, when we feed mice the same diet all day (actually all night…mice are nocturnal), they’re fine.
Note that both the low-fat and the high-fat diets contained 20% protein, which puts them well ahead of our typical “breakfast snack” of cereal, oatmeal, or a bagel. The difference was that calories were swapped between carbohydrate in the form of sucrose (table sugar) and cornstarch, and fat in the form of lard.
Also note that even the “high-fat” diet was 35% carbs, of which fully half was sucrose (table sugar)…not exactly a healthy diet.
“In contrast, fluctuation in dietary composition during the active period (as occurs in human beings) markedly influences whole body metabolic homeostasis. Mice fed a high-fat meal at the beginning of the active period retain metabolic flexibility in response to dietary challenges later in the active period (as revealed by indirect calorimetry).
Conversely, consumption of high-fat meal at the end of the active phase leads to increased weight gain, adiposity, glucose intolerance, hyperinsulinemia, hypertriglyceridemia, and hyperleptinemia (that is cardiometabolic syndrome) in mice. The latter perturbations in energy/metabolic homeostasis are independent of daily total or fat-derived calories.”
To summarize: if the mice ate a high-fat breakfast, it doesn’t matter what they ate for the rest of the day. But if they ate a low-fat breakfast and a high-fat dinner, they were in massive metabolic trouble.
Does this pattern sound familiar to anyone? Low-fat breakfast and high-fat dinner? A quick “heart-healthy” breakfast of oatmeal, Nuts-N-Twigs cereal in skim milk, or a bagel with fat-free cream cheese—and a rich, delicious, long-awaited dinner out, followed by potato chips or a pint of Ben and Jerry’s on the couch?
I’ll quote senior author Martin Young here, from the press release: “This study suggests that if you ate a carbohydrate-rich breakfast it would promote carbohydrate utilization throughout the rest of the day, whereas, if you have a fat-rich breakfast, you have metabolic plasticity to transfer your energy utilization between carbohydrate and fat.”
Remember my article about metabolic flexibility and the respiratory exchange ratio (RER)? The RER graphs from Young et. al. show that mice fed a high-fat breakfast maintained the flexibility to switch back to fat-burning after eating a high-carb, low-fat dinner…whereas mice fed a high-carb, low-fat breakfast were stuck burning carbs all day, even during the fasting period between breakfast and dinner.
The conclusion is clear: how you break your fast programs your metabolism for the rest of the day. If you start your day eating like a predator, you’ll be a predator all day. If you start your day snacking like prey, you’ll be prey all day.
Still feel like eating those “heart-healthy whole grains” for breakfast?
Young et. al. explains how dedicated low-fat dieters manage to lose weight, so long as they keep grazing on low-fat prey foods all day. But for most of us, that low-fat willpower only lasts until dinner…which makes us obese and diabetic.
Better to eat like predators—complete protein and rich, delicious, nutritious animal fat—at every meal.
“But That’s Mice,” You Say.
The authors admit that they need to follow up with the human version of this study—but we can see similar results here.
“Subjects consumed fewer kilocalories after the EGG breakfast compared with the BAGEL breakfast (P< .01). In addition, subjects consumed more kilocalories in the 24-hour period after the BAGEL compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .05). Based on VAS, subjects were hungrier and less satisfied 3 hours after the BAGEL breakfast compared with the EGG breakfast (P < .01).
Participants had higher plasma glucose area under the curve (P < .05) as well as an increased ghrelin and insulin area under the curve with BAGEL (P < .05). These findings suggest that consumption of eggs for breakfast results in less variation of plasma glucose and insulin, a suppressed ghrelin response, and reduced energy intake."
We also see similar results in the exhaustively instrumented study I reference in my previous article How “Heart-Healthy Whole Grains” Make Us Fat. Yes, it’s theoretically possible that the results in Bray et. al. won’t apply to humans…but the evidence so far is that it’s extremely unlikely.
Breakfast Skipping: Should I Eat Breakfast At All?
So we’ve established that it’s much better for weight maintenance, and for our health, to eat a complete, high-fat breakfast than a sugary, low-fat “breakfast snack”. But what about skipping breakfast entirely?
There are several observational studies showing that people who skip breakfast are more likely to be obese. Unfortunately, people usually skip breakfast because they have to be at school or at work very early in the morning and didn’t get enough sleep, not because they’re trying to lose weight…so that doesn’t tell us much other than stress is related to obesity, which we already know. And I know of only one controlled study on breakfast skipping—and it’s calorie-restricted, so it doesn’t tell us much either. (Though it does tell us that obese women who previously ate breakfast but started skipping it lost the most weight…so, if anything, it supports the concept.)
Here’s a recent study that actually provides useful data:
“Reduced breakfast energy intake is associated with lower total daily intake. The influence of the ratio of breakfast to overall energy intake largely depends on the post-breakfast rather than breakfast intake pattern. Therefore, overweight and obese subjects should consider the reduction of breakfast calories as a simple option to improve their daily energy balance.”
In summary: the more you eat for breakfast, the less you’ll eat over the rest of the day…but not enough less to compensate for the calories you ate at breakfast.
There are some other interesting scraps of information hidden in this paper. Obese people were no more likely than normal-weight people to skip breakfast. Calorie intake from beverages remained relatively constant regardless of breakfast size, suggesting that calories from liquids have little or no effect on satiety. And, unsurprisingly, the foods most strongly associated with an increase in breakfast calories were bread and cake.
Figure 2 shows graphs of calories consumed per day, plotted against calories consumed for breakfast, for obese subjects.
We can see that for every 100 additional calories eaten at breakfast by an obese person, daily calorie consumption goes up by about 65 calories.
Figure 4 shows the same graphs, for normal-weight people:
And we can see that for every 100 additional calories eaten at breakfast by a normal-weight person, daily calorie consumption goes up by about 80 calories!
At this point, I can’t resist the urge to interject “If you’re trying to minimize calorie intake, it’s clear that zero is an excellent number of breakfast calories.”
Finally, here’s some breaking news for type 2 diabetics: skipping breakfast helps normalize blood glucose levels. This shouldn’t be a surprise, because fasting increases metabolic flexibility:
Objectives: To evaluate if an improved daily glycemic profile could be achieved in patients with type 2 diabetes by withholding breakfast, but maintaining the same total daily intake of calorie and the same composition of carbohydrates, fat and protein.
Results: The standard deviation based on plasma glucose was 32% higher after the breakfast diet compared with the non-breakfast diet (P<0.0001)
Conclusions: Not all patients with type 2 diabetes may need breakfast. Moreover, a non-breakfast diet reduces glycemic variability.
Is Breakfast A Myth? My Conclusion
The evidence is clear. Whenever we finally do break our fast for the day, we should eat like predators: a complete meal, full of complete protein and delicious, nutritious animal fat. (Coconut oil is fine too.) If we start our day like prey—by grazing on carb-heavy snacks like cereal, bagels, donuts, and oatmeal—we’ll either be stuck eating low-fat snack food all day, or we’ll be doing ourselves terrible metabolic damage.
But should we eat breakfast at all, or skip it and wait for lunch? This is less clear, but it seems silly to stuff yourself with calories when you’re not hungry. My conclusion: unless you know you’re going to be doing lots of manual labor (or aerobic exercise) that day and can’t stop to eat, don’t eat until hunger starts to distract you from your tasks.
Yes, it will seem strange at first to swim against the tide of received wisdom—but as we’ve seen, our body chemistry is primed to start the day without food. And as one of my commenters replied to Part 1:
“I think I asked myself honestly if I was hungry for the first time ever when I woke up this morning. The answer being a resounding no.” -Josh
Here’s a tip: if you feel like you’re hungry but the idea of eating any specific food has no appeal, you may simply be thirsty. Try drinking a glass of water, as we’re usually somewhat dehydrated when we wake up.
Yes, it’s OK if you’re genuinely hungry soon after you wake! When I started weight training, I found myself ravenous when I woke up. (Not that this should be a surprise…my body is trying to build muscle fibers.) And those new to eating like a predator sometimes find that after many years of grain-based malnutrition, they crave real food several times a day in order to refill their nutrient stores and rebuild their bodies.
The Logistics Of A Late Breakfast
The problem with not eating when we wake up is that we’re stuck eating out of vending machines at school or at work—and one excellent dietary rule is to never eat anything that comes out of a vending machine.
My opinion on the subject: if bacteria won’t eat it, we shouldn’t either.
Here are some ideas I have for eating a complete breakfast at work. Please contribute your own in the comments, and I’ll add the best ones to this list!
Remember: a stack of Takealongs or other microwave-safe containers will make your life much easier.
Hard-boiled eggs are the classic portable breakfast.
Bacon! Fry up a pound all at once, keep it in the refrigerator, and bring it with you in a Takealong or other airtight, microwave-safe container.
Roast beef, or meat of any kind. Put it in an airtight container. It won’t go bad in the few hours between leaving your house and eating it.
You can cook a fresh egg in a bowl in the microwave. Just scramble it and nuke it until it’s done.
Potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc. Mashed potatoes, potato pancakes, home fries, even hash browns warm up just fine in the microwave.
So do most leftovers. Just cook some extra dinner, and nuke it for breakfast!
Bring a small electric skillet to work. Warning: delicious cooking smells may distract co-workers.
And, of course, there’s the easiest option: suck it up until 11 AM, when most restaurants and cafeterias open for lunch. As a bonus, they’re usually empty then—so you’ll spend less time waiting in line, and more time eating and relaxing.
Since you’re breaking a very long habit and embarking on a new, unfamiliar way of eating, It’ll most likely take some experimentation to settle into a routine that works for you. But I guarantee you’ll be healthier, sleeker, and more powerful once you ditch the candy and desserts, and start eating like a predator.
Live in freedom, live in beauty.
Postscript: My Readers Speak
I asked about the breakfast habits of my readers in Part 1, and received many classic responses which I feel compelled to share.
My Readers, On The Subject Of Breakfast
“As a general rule we should be suspicious of any food that goes well with chocolate and/or sugar.” -Asclepius
“As a former sugar/carb-aholic breakfast was the hardest to change, but I beat those sugars into submission with bacon and eggs.” -Nax
“Nothin’ says “breakfast” like a hard-boiled egg encased in spicy pork sausage and rolled in almond flour.” -Jan
“That expensive breakfast cereal… I used to eat it for pudding before I wised up to cream, nuts and strawberries… and Scotch.” -kem
“I had homemade granola for breakfast for 30+ years, one of the hardest addictions I had to overcome.” -Bill DeWitt
“My hungry mornings are peaceful and productive – my favorite time of day. Of course, it didn’t used to be this way. Before I discovered the Paleo diet I was an impatient witch in the mornings!” -Peggy
“That might be also a reason for the French paradox. All people here I knew enough to know what breakfast they had, usually had only coffee and a cigarette. […] As for the African breakfast, I can also attest that on Comoros it is only leftovers from the evening.” -gallier2
“Reminds me of that pivotal moment several years ago when I was working to convince my wife that the kids were better off without breakfast if it wasn’t something we cooked, like bacon and eggs. If we were short on time the usual breakfast was pop-tarts.
One morning my wife came in to find them all eating Snickers bars. She was appalled. I said it was breakfast, and then pointed out the nutrition information compared to a pop-tart. Identical calories, but the Snickers was higher in protein.
Now it’s a protein/fat breakfast or none at all.” -Bill Strahan
My Readers, On The Subject Of Not Eating Breakfast
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day – the most important to skip.” -Walter
“Through the week I have a dingo’s breakfast … a scratch, a piss and a look around. Then I get dressed for work and don’t eat until lunchtime.” -Paul Halliday
“It simply makes no sense to believe that a healthy human should be eating when he’s not hungry. We’d be the dumbest animals alive.” -Fmgd
“I think I asked myself honestly if I was hungry for the first time ever when I woke up this morning. The answer being a resounding no.” -Josh
“A few years ago, my mother starting dating and then living with a man who had been single for a while and had never felt hungry in the morning so always skipped breakfast and eaten whatever and whenever he felt like. He was lean when they met, then she started nagging him into ‘healthy’ behaviours such as eating “the most important meal of the day” and “low-fat” foods such as margerine and skim milk.
When I saw them recently, I noticed that he is getting a significant spare tyre around the middle.” -Emma
I’ll close this article with an interesting observation: men are far more likely to skip breakfast entirely, whereas women are most likely to eat a normal or late breakfast. I’ll resist the urge to engage in half-baked evolutionary speculation—but it’s a robust trend, at least among my commenters.
Got some suggestions for a solid breakfast away from home? Want to argue that we’re doing it wrong? Leave a comment, and use the buttons below to tell your friends!
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?
Rephrased for modern humans: Predators eat meals, prey grazes on snacks. This means you need to eat meals which will carry you through to your next meal, but that won’t make you tired or sleepy.
So why is it so difficult to stop snacking? Why is snack food so uniquely addicting? Why can we demolish entire tubes of Pringles, boxes of donuts, trays of chocolates, and bags of goldfish crackers, when we would never finish the same number of calories in the form of meat and vegetables?
It’s because snack food is a magic trick, played on our senses of taste.
Note: This article will help you understand what’s behind the concept of “food reward” that’s been making the rounds lately.
How Our Tastes Evolved: Understanding The Basic Tastes
Our tastes have been selected, over millions of years, to enjoy foods that are nutritious for us, and to dislike foods that are poisonous or not nutritious. Any humanoid whose tastes were not in accordance with healthy eating—for instance, an inability to distinguish plant toxins, or a lack of preference for calorie-dense fat over lean protein which we have a limited ability to process—would have died out over the hundreds of thousands of generations that separate us from our quadrupedal, forest-dwelling ancestors.
The key to understanding snack food is to understand what foods were available to us in the Paleolithic, so that we can understand what our tastes are for. It’s impossible to overdose on sour or bitter because they’re aversive in large doses, so that leaves us with sweet (which also helps detect fat), salty, and umami.
Let’s examine fat: there was no such thing as “vegetable oil” (actually seed oil) in the Paleolithic. The only year-round source of dietary fat was animals, with nuts a secondary, seasonal source. Therefore, our taste for fat is primarily a taste for animal fat—including all the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K2-MK4) found in animal fat, and for which fat is necessary to absorb.
A wild banana. Small, starchy, and mostly seeds.
Sweetness was limited by lack of availability. Paleolithic fruits were much smaller and more bitter than modern varieties, which have been bred for sweetness and seedlessness to the point of being unable to reproduce without human help—and they would not have always been available at their peak of ripeness, as they’re eaten by many other animals too. Honey has always been rare. And as the Drs. Jaminet note, it is entirely possible that sweet taste receptors do double duty as animal fat detectors.
Salt was difficult to obtain, except for those who lived near the ocean. And as Parmesan cheese and kombu dashi hadn’t yet been created, umami was limited to its natural source—meat.
In conclusion, we can see that our taste receptors are primarily geared towards obtaining fatty meat and salt, with nuts and sweet fruit as occasional bonuses. So it’s not surprising that we enjoy salty, fatty meat and sweet fruits.
Snacking: The Supernormal Stimulus Of Taste
“Supernormal stimulus” is a technical term for something that’s so much better than reality that we prefer it…
…even when it’s obviously fake.
Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz found many examples of this in animals. Mother birds prefer to incubate fake eggs made of plaster if they’re larger and more brightly colored than their own eggs. Male stickleback fish will attack anything with a red underside, including toy boats.
This is because, in the evolutionary history of birds and sticklebacks, there haven’t been enough curious ethologists with plaster eggs and red-bottomed toy boats to make it important for these animals to tell the difference. If it’s egg-shaped and in your nest, sit on the biggest one, because it’s most likely to survive. If it’s in the water and red underneath, attack it, because it’s most likely another male.
Niko Tinbergen painting some supernormal stimuli.
A supernormal stimulus for humans.
Humans are no exception: we’re vulnerable to supernormal stimuli, too. Photoshop gives men rippling abdominals and women exaggerated curves. Comic book heroes are just as unrealistic as the heroines. Round yellow smiley faces communicate emotion more clearly and simply than a picture of a smiling person.
And in the evolutionary time of humans, there hasn’t been enough refined sugar, seed oil, and MSG to make it important for us to tell the difference between them and real food.
Here’s a startling experiment: rats prefer saccharine and sugar to intravenous cocaine, even after previously becoming addicted to cocaine:
“…From day 7 onward, rats sampled lever C [cocaine] almost maximally, though slightly less than lever S [saccharin], before being allowed to make their choices (Fig. 1c). Thus, despite near maximal cocaine sampling, rats under the S+/C+ condition acquired a preference for lever S as quickly as rats under the S+/C- condition.”
“Our findings clearly demonstrate that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and -addicted individuals.”
Characteristics Of Successful Snack Food
If you were to design a profitable and successful snack food, you’d want it to have several characteristics:
It would be made of cheap ingredients, allowing a high profit margin.
Since our government heavily subsidizes industrial grain production, you’d make them of grains and grain products…corn, wheat, and soy. Mostly corn, because it’s so heavily overproduced that we’re forced, by law, to feed it to our cars!
It would be shelf-stable and require no preparation, so that it could be kept without refrigeration, taken anywhere, and eaten at any time.
Therefore, you’d make it out of highly-processed ingredients that are shelf-stable, pump it full of preservatives so that it could survive for months in a vending machine, and enclose it in lots of disposable packaging so it wouldn’t get damaged in transit.
It would concentrate the tastes we’ve evolved to enjoy far beyond their natural amounts, and as much as our technology allows.
This would be the supernormal stimuli of fatty, salty, umami, and sweet: MSG, crystalline sugar, seed oils, fruit juices, “natural and artificial flavors”.
Finally, it would not be satiating.
No matter how much you ate, you would never be satisfied.
In other words, you’d create a movie set: something that looks like reality, but even better. More scenic, more exotic or mysterious or futuristic, more dramatically lit…
…and completely, utterly fake. The buildings have no interior, everything in the distance is just a matte painting or computer graphics, and it’s all built as cheaply as possible because it only has to last until the scene has been shot. All a movie set has to do is look nice for a few minutes, or a few seconds, from the right angle. You can’t live in a movie set, because that’s not what it’s built for…
…and you can’t live off snacks, because that’s not what they’re made for either.
The Magic Of Snacks, Part I: Taste Without Nutrition
Just as a movie set’s only constraint is to look good for a few seconds from a limited set of camera angles, a snack food’s only constraint is to taste good until it slides down your throat.
And that’s what technology allows us to do: create products (“snacks”) that tickle our taste receptors far more than real food can ever hope to—but that don’t come with the nutrition that selected us to crave those tastes in the first place.
This is the reason that the concept “eat whole foods, minimally processed” is generally sound: if whole foods taste good to us, it’s most likely because they contain nutrients we need, not because they’ve been engineered to tickle our taste buds. (Note that all modern fruits are heavily engineered products of thousands of years of careful breeding: read Dan Koeppel’s fascinating book “Banana” for a look at one typical example.)
The Magic Of Snacks, Part II: Taste Without Satiety
A pleasing taste isn’t enough to make an addictive snack food: as mentioned above, it must also be non-satiating. Steak and eggs are delicious—but we don’t have the urge to eat them until we’re sick.
There are many parts to satiety, but I’ll touch on what I believe to be the most important issue: protein satiation.
Complete protein is satiating. Our bodies absolutely require complete protein—but they also have a limited capacity to process protein in excess of our requirement. This shows up as what’s called “protein leverage”: people tend to consume food until they’ve ingested about 360 calories worth of complete protein. All other things being equal, if we eat foods high in protein, we consume less calories, and if we eat foods low in protein, we consume more. (You can read more about this issue in this AJCN article, and here.)
“Protein” is just chains of amino acids. “Complete protein” is protein containing all the essential amino acids—the ones we must eat because our bodies can’t make them—roughly in the proportions our body needs them.
Interestingly, egg protein is the standard by which protein quality is measured—probably because it takes the same kinds of protein (and other nutrients, like cholesterol) to make a healthy chicken as it does to make a healthy human. Any dietary advice that tells you to avoid eggs for any reason is, by definition, wrongheaded.
Therefore, if we want to sell an addictive and non-satiating food, we should keep it very low in protein (e.g. candy, cookies, potato chips). If it does contain protein, that protein should be incomplete—deficient in at least one essential amino acid—since the limiting factor for protein utilization is the least abundant essential amino acid.
Guess what? Corn and wheat, the foundation of chips, crackers, cookies, and over 90% of the breakfast aisle, are both deficient in lysine. And both zein (corn protein) and gluten (wheat protein) are prolamins, which are very difficult for our digestive enzymes to break down and decrease the digestibility of the associated starch.
In support of this theory, you’ll note that “energy bars” are more satiating than candy bars, despite having a similar taste and number of calories…most likely because they tend to contain some amount of complete protein. (Though they make up for it by costing twice as much. You could be eating prime rib for what energy bars cost per pound. Think about it.)
Fat: The Satiety Potentiator
Fat is not satiating by itself—but it increases the satiation of the protein it’s eaten with. This is because fat slows gastric emptying and increases GI transit time. (More information here.) This is one reason why we can eat entire tubes of Pringles, but only a few eggs: Pringles contain fat and carbohydrate, eggs contain fat and complete protein.
Unless, of course, you’re Cool Hand Luke…
In support of protein satiation, a large hard-boiled egg contains about 75 calories, so that superhuman (and fictional) feat would involve 3750 calories’ worth of eggs. A can of Pringles contains about 900 calories.
50 eggs is just over four dozen eggs…3750 calories is just over four cans of Pringles. What’s easier to eat…a dozen hard-boiled eggs, or a can of Pringles?
The Nutrient Leverage Hypothesis
We can take the protein leverage hypothesis even farther, by extending it to other necessary nutrients. The unjustly neglected blog Fat Fiction makes the startling claim that nutrient deficiency is responsible for the obesity crisis, and cites (among other sources) an intriguing double-blind, placebo-controlled study of feeding multivitamins to obese Chinese women:
“After 26 weeks, compared with the placebo group, the MMS group had significantly lower BW [body weight], BMI, FM [fat mass], TC and LDL-C, significantly higher REE [resting energy expenditure] and HDL-C, as well as a borderline significant trend of lower RQ [respiratory quotient] (P=0.053) and WC [waist circumference] (P=0.071). The calcium group also had significantly higher HDL-C and lower LDL-C levels compared with the placebo group.”
Anyway, I recommend you read Mike’s “Two Minute Summary”. I’m not sure nutrient deficiency is everything, as he seems to be saying—but I believe he’s got hold of an important piece of the obesity puzzle that has been neglected in the rush to blame everything on insulin, and I encourage others in the ‘paleo’ field to build on his work.
Conclusion: Snacking Makes You Fat, By Design
Another supernormal stimulus.
In conclusion, we can see that “snack food” is designed to make us fat—by giving our taste buds a supernormal stimulus, while withholding the nutrition that has always gone along with that stimulus in evolutionary time. Just like the greylag goose that tries to sit on an egg-colored volleyball, or the stickleback fish attacking a red-painted toy boat, we can’t resist shoving highly processed, brightly packaged non-foods like cookies, donuts, crackers, corn chips, bread, cereal, and candy bars down our throats—
—especially when our rational minds are short-circuited by the label “All-natural!” or “Contains heart-healthy whole grains!” Our livers don’t care if fructose comes from Fanta or apple juice, our pancreas doesn’t care if glucose overload is accompanied by indigestible fiber and plant toxins (“whole grains”), and our eicosanoid pathways can’t tell if they’re clogged with omega-6 fats from Cool Ranch Doritos or Organic Multigrain Rainforest Eco-Chips.
Don’t believe the hype. If it takes multiple layers of brightly-colored packaging and a $multi-million, multi-media ad campaign to sell it, it’s not food. No one has to put meat or eggs in a brightly colored box with a cartoon character on it. I’m just sayin’.
Postscript: For those who want to know more, I explore our mechanisms of hunger and reward in detail in my epic series "Why Are We Hungry?" My older series on carbohydrate addiction starts here and explains some of its pathways.
Support gnolls.org by making your Amazon.com purchases through this affiliate link:
It costs you nothing, and I get a small spiff. Thanks! -JS
Subscribe to Posts
Gnolls In Your Inbox!
Sign up for the sporadic yet informative gnolls.org newsletter. Since I don't update every day, this is a great way to keep abreast of important content. (Your email will not be sold or shared.)
IMPORTANT! If you do not receive a confirmation email, check your spam folder.
Login/Register for the forums, and to leave comments that link to your website Register | Login