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?
This article could easily be subtitled “The Study That Tells You Everything You Need To Know About Insulin, Blood Sugar, Carbohydrates, Satiety, And Obesity”. Yes, I admit to a degree of hyperbole—but this study is so well instrumented and controlled, and its results so informative, that I believe it’s important for everyone to read it.
You should really click on the fulltext link above and read the study yourself, because it’s very clearly written…but as not everyone has that kind of time, I’ll cover the important parts.
The design of the study was simple.
Take twelve obese teenage boys.
Admit them to the research center the evening before. Feed them dinner and a bedtime snack (the same each time).
In the morning, feed them one of three different breakfasts, each with equal caloric value but dramatically varying composition.
Measure blood samples and subjective perception of hunger every 30 minutes.
Feed them the same meal for lunch.
Repeat blood and hunger measurements for the next 5 hours.
Allow them to request food at any time after lunch. Measure when and how much they ate.
Repeat after 1-2 weeks, until everyone’s been measured for all three meals.
The three breakfasts and lunches in question:
“High-GI”: Instant oatmeal with 2% milk, a tablespoon of cream, and glucose plus an unspecified “artificial sweetener”. Milk was treated with lactase in order to increase GI. 64% of calories from carbohydrate, 16% from protein, 20% from fat.
“Medium-GI”: Steel-cut oatmeal, prepared as above—but without the lactase, and with fructose instead of glucose and sweetener. Same macronutrient composition.
“Low-GI”: Vegetable omelet made of appx. 1 whole egg and one egg white, low-fat cheese, spinach, and tomato, plus some grapefruit and apple slices. 40% carbohydrate, 30% protein, 30% fat.
All three meals contained the same number of total calories, and weighed approximately the same. (And, if anything, caloric availability would have been greater with the instant oatmeal than with the steel-cut oats.)
How “Heart-Healthy Whole Grains” Make Us Fat—In Pictures!
“The mean area under the glycemic response curve for the high-GI meal (284 mmoles-min/L) was twice that of the medium-GI meal (141 mmoles-min/L; P < .001) and nearly fourfold that of the low-GI meal (76.6 mmoles-min/L; P < .001)."
Is anyone surprised that a big pile of high-carb oatmeal spikes blood glucose and insulin, and hammers glucagon?
Do you see the huge epinephrine (= adrenaline) spike four hours after the instant oatmeal, when the sugar hit wears off? (And the start of one an hour later, with the steel-cut oatmeal?) How do you think that makes you feel? Nervous, irritable, and desperately in need of another sugar hit?
Moving on: here’s the subjective hunger level, charted over time, after the three test breakfasts. Again, these results shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone:
Note that there is no time at which the hungriest omelet-eater was more hungry than any oatmeal-eater…and that after five hours (approximately the time between breakfast and lunch), both the instant and steel-cut oatmeal-eaters were approximately 65% hungrier than the omelet-eaters!
What do you think that means at lunchtime? It means the “heart-healthy” oatmeal breakfast will leave you ravenously hungry at lunch (if you even make it there without snacking), whereupon you’ll gorge and suffer an hour or two of “food coma”. Goodbye, afternoon!
Now here’s the punchline: the test subjects were fed the same meal for lunch as they had for breakfast. Over the next five hours, they were allowed to request a snack platter and eat all they wanted, as often as they wanted.
How about that?
These results speak for themselves:
“Voluntary energy intake after the high-GI meal (5.8 megajoule [mJ]) was 53% greater than after the medium-GI meal (3.8 mJ), and 81% greater than after the low-GI meal (3.2 mJ).”
“In addition, mean time to the first meal request after lunch (2.6, 3.2, and 3.9 hours for the high-, medium-, and low-GI meals, respectively) differed between test meal groups (high GI vs low GI; P = .01; high GI vs medium GI, not significant).”
That’s not a misprint. People consumed 81% more calories during the five hours after eating instant oatmeal than after eating the same number of calories as an omelet and fruit—and 19% more calories after eating steel-cut oatmeal than after eating an omelet and fruit. (Note that the hunger curve for both kinds of oatmeal was rising precipitously at 5 hours, whereas the omelet + fruit curve flattened out. Do you ever have to work late? Is dinner always five hours after lunch?) Furthermore, the omelet-eaters took 50% longer to request any food at all.
That’s not all! A modern “heart-healthy” oatmeal breakfast, as mandated for schoolchildren by the new US government guidelines, would use skim milk and no cream (instead of 2% milk plus a tablespoon of half-and-half), driving the GI even higher and fat content even lower. A traditional* breakfast would use whole eggs, butter or coconut oil, and full-fat cheese (or ham, or bacon, or just an extra egg), driving the GI even lower and the fat content much higher! (Recall that between the apple and grapefruit, the low-fat cheese, and the egg whites, the “low-GI” omelet breakfast was still 40% carbohydrate and only 30% fat.) So real-world differences will be even greater than this experiment demonstrates.
* These days “traditional” is confined to a few ghettos called “paleo”, “primal”, or “Weston A. Price”. But less than a hundred years ago, nearly everyone who could afford real food was smart enough to eat it.
Conclusion: Eat Real Food, Not Birdseed
Do you want to be fat, constantly hungry, or both? Keep eating that birdseed. (Known to our overlords as “heart-healthy whole grains”.) The US government pays Big Agribusiness billions of dollars of our tax money each year to overproduce grain—to the point that we’re forced to put corn ethanol in our cars at a net energy loss just to get rid of the excess. Your poor health and shortened life help keep their profits high.
(This article is Part III of a series on carbohydrate addiction. Each part stands alone, but I recommend starting with Part I, “Why You’re Addicted To Bread“, as it explains the fundamentals. Part II is here.)
The Mystery of the Flour Tortilla
This article started when I asked a simple question: “Why do flour tortillas have such a low glycemic index?”
The humble flour tortilla tops any list of low glycemic index grain products, with a GI of only 30. Yet whole-wheat bread has a GI of 71! (Source.)
Why is that?
“Complex Carbohydrates”…Not So Complex After All
Most low-fat diet pushers (from Pritikin, to Ornish, to the ADA and US government, to vegan fronts like the PCRM) make a big noise about “complex carbohydrates”. The theory goes like this: Table sugar is made of just two simple sugars, glucose and fructose. That’s bad, because it digests too quickly for our body to use all of it—whereupon the excess is turned into fat, stored as fat, and we’re hungry again. In contrast, the ‘complex carbohydrates’ in whole-grain products are good because they digest more slowly, allowing our body to use all of them. Right?
As described in Part I, whole wheat bread (71) has the same glycemic index as white bread (72), and both of them have a higher GI than white table sugar (62)! This fact alone proves that the theory of “complex carbs” is flawed: our bodies absorb the sugar from that ‘healthy’ whole wheat bread more quickly than…pure table sugar.
Low Glycemic Index: What’s Responsible?
So what’s the real story behind glycemic index? Why do we digest some ‘carbohydrates’ (sugars) so much more slowly than others? And how does a flour tortilla top the list?
Answer: it’s the fat.
Mexican flour tortillas have a GI of 30, whereas American whole wheat bread has a GI of 72. Remember, you need plenty of lard (or, at least, grain oil) to make a nice, flat, chewy tortilla.
A plain French baguette has a sky-high glycemic index of 95: spread some butter and jam on it, and the GI declines to 65.
Cooked white rice has 0.2% fat and a GI of 64; a meal of white boiled rice, grilled hamburger, cheese, and butter has a GI of 24.
A Pizza Hut Super Supreme pizza (13.2% fat) has a GI of 30, whereas a Vegetarian Supreme (7.8% fat) has a GI of 49.
This is common sense once we think about it for a minute. As anyone who’s taken a freshman nutrition class can tell you, fat inhibits gastric emptying and slows digestion. For example:
Executive Summary: A high-fat mixture of egg yolks, olive oil, and butter left the stomach over 50% slower than spaghetti…and that doesn’t even count the time taken to digest it in the intestine. (Also note that spaghetti has a glycemic index of 38-61, depending on cooking time—much lower than bread or cereal at 70-80.)
In conclusion, the theory of “complex carbs” is a red herring. The primary driver of glycemic index is fat content. The more fat, the slower the sugars (‘carbohydrates’) are digested, and the lower the glycemic index.
(Yes, it is possible to make lower-GI pure carbohydrates: a wheat ‘bread’ containing 80% intact kernels gets down to a GI of 52…just under a Snickers bar at 55. But wait…80% intact kernels? That’s not bread…that’s a cake of birdseed! I’ve never even seen that sold in a store, let alone watched someone actually try to eat it.)
Conclusion: A Low-Fat Diet Means A High Glycemic Index Diet
When we take fat out of our diet and replace it with ‘carbohydrates’ (sugars), the glycemic index of the food we eat goes up dramatically.
This has obvious negative consequences for our health and weight, and I’m going to highlight it, because it’s the key to this article:
High-GI ‘carbohydrates’ (sugars), simple or complex, are digested far more quickly than we can burn them for energy, whereupon our bodies convert them into fat and store them as fat—leaving us hungry, even though we are gaining weight!
Then, we get a transient dopamine rush and subsequent serotonin high before our blood sugar crashes, but that decreases over time as we get fatter—meaning that we are chemically as well as metabolically addicted to sugar (‘carbohydrates’).
Does this situation sound familiar? You’re told to take those ‘unhealthy’ fatty foods out of your diet—and suddenly you’re either hungry and miserable, or you’re gaining weight uncontrollably. Ever wonder why you don’t feel full no matter how many plain bagels, glasses of skim milk, cups of low-fat yogurt, and boxes of fat-free Fig Newtons you eat…yet you still have the compulsion to keep eating?
Even worse, if this vicious cycle of goes on long enough, you become insulin-resistant, and then diabetic. Isn’t this what’s happening to all of America? Our ‘obesity epidemic’ started once we told people to avoid fat at all costs…
…and now you know why. It’s because by removing fat from your diet, you’re turning everything you eat into candy.
Incredible but true fact: a medium Jamba Juice fruit smoothie (‘Berry Lime Sublime’) has substantially more calories (487) than a Quarter Pounder (417)—and a large has almost as many calories (610) as a Double Quarter Pounder (647)!
Which one will leave you feeling like you ate a meal, and which one will leave you still hungry?
...than the Quarter Pounder!
This has more calories...
But Isn’t Fat Bad For You? Science Says “No.”
We’ve been told for decades that fat and cholesterol are bad, and saturated fat will kill you. That is, stated baldly, a lie.
There is no association between saturated fat intake and heart disease, and there is no association between egg intake (the largest source of dietary cholesterol) and heart disease.
“A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD.”
“The pooled relative risk estimates that compared extreme quantiles of saturated fat intake were 1.07 (95% CI: 0.96, 1.19; P = 0.22) for CHD, 0.81 (95% CI: 0.62, 1.05; P = 0.11) for stroke, and 1.00 (95% CI: 0.89, 1.11; P = 0.95) for CVD. Consideration of age, sex, and study quality did not change the results. “
Here’s the layman’s version, from Scientific American:
“…The quintile of women who ate the most easily digestible and readily absorbed carbohydrates—that is, those with the highest glycemic index—were 47 percent more likely to acquire type 2 diabetes than those in the quintile with the lowest average glycemic-index score.” … “women who were overweight and in the quartile that consumed meals with the highest average glycemic load, a metric that incorporates portion size, were 79 percent more likely to develop coronary vascular disease than overweight women in the lowest quartile.”
“The next time you eat a piece of buttered toast, [Ludwig] says, consider that ‘butter is actually the more healthful component.'”
“We did not find a significant positive association between egg consumption and increased risk of mortality from CHD or stroke in the US population. These results corroborate the findings of previous studies.”
So: eat fatty meats, eat eggs, eat avocados. Cook with butter, tallow, and coconut oil, and perhaps some extra-virgin olive oil for taste. And if you absolutely must eat candy in the form of bread, cereal, or potatoes, eat them with plenty of butter, olive oil, cream, and whole milk.
Sounds a lot better than rice cakes and dry toast, doesn’t it?
Live in freedom, live in beauty.
Postscript: if you want to know how we got bamboozled into believing that foods we’ve eaten for millions of years (meat) were bad for us, but industrial products that didn’t even exist until this century (‘vegetable oil‘) were good for us, you can watch Tom Naughton’s entertaining presentation “Big Fat Fiasco”, available here and on DVD here.
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