Should you really eat breakfast like a king? Can a smoothie ever be enough? And why do you get so hungry after eating a bowl of supposedly filling porridge? With so many myths surrounding the first meal of the day, it's no wonder we don't know whether it's OK to grab a piece of toast as we're running out the door, or if we should be rising early to whip up a plate of bacon and eggs.
The nutritionist Ian Marber thinks we should ditch the typical breakfast – slices of toast and bowls of cereal. "Complex carbohydrates are converted from food to glucose slowly, which is great," he says. "But because complex carbs have an inferior alternative in simple carbs – white bread, sugar – I feel we've elevated complex carbs too much. These are good, but they're not that good." Which explains why even a bowl of porridge or a slice of brown toast just isn't enough to keep hunger at bay and energy levels up until lunch.
What to eat
Marber recommends a mix of carbs and protein instead, and suggests simple ways to transform your usual breakfast (see panel). "Protein is converted to glucose very slowly, which means your cells aren't flooded with more glucose than they can cope with‚" he explains. Keeping blood-sugar levels steady means energy levels are kept steadier for longer, and that mid-morning sluggish feeling can be held off.
So poached egg (protein) on wholemeal toast (complex carbs) is ideal. Great, if you've got 15 minutes to dedicate to cooking first thing. But for so many of us, every morning minute is precious, and we'd rather forfeit a decent breakfast to spend that quarter-of-an-hour in bed, or getting to work earlier. No matter, says Marber, just change the way you think about cooking. "You could scramble an egg in two minutes and eat it straight from the pan, then have an oatcake on the way out the door. It doesn't have to be beautiful." Be a little flexible about what you consider breakfast food, too. "You could eat seabass with cornflakes to the same effect, if you were so inclined," says Marber. And don't fret about eating a different breakfast every day, so long as you have a varied diet for lunch and dinner. In short, take as many shortcuts as you need, if it means you'll eat the all-important protein/carb mix each morning.
There's just one more thing you should know before you can go and make the perfect energy-boosting breakfast, though: the difference between complete and incomplete proteins. Meat, eggs, fish, tofu, milk and cheese are complete, while oats, nuts and seeds, rye, beans and the like are incomplete. "You should eat complete proteins with each meal," explains Marber. But this doesn't mean adding fish or cheese to everything, rather that incomplete proteins shouldn't be eaten alone. Instead, add another, different incomplete protein to the meal – one slice of toast with humous, the other with peanut butter, for instance – and the problem is solved. It's a rule vegetarians especially should take note of.
When to eat
Should you eat as soon as you get up, or go without for as long as possible? And what if you can't face food first thing? Whatever you do, Marber says, just make sure you eat something within half-an-hour of getting up, "even if it's just half an apple and two brazil nuts, representing your carbs and protein". Eat a second, larger breakfast later.
This two-breakfast method might be the solution if you find yourself getting hungry mid-morning, too – one when you get up, and a second when you get to work, perhaps. "I favour eating little and often," Marber says. "Better that than trying to fit one big morning meal in," he adds. "You know the old adage, 'Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dine like a pauper' – that's because of the idea that you've simply got a long time to burn off a lot of energy. But your cells, when they get flooded with glucose, don't go, 'Ah, it's breakfast, we'll save some of this for later on today' – they just coldheartedly store what they need to store. If you overeat, it just gets stored away."
Having two breakfasts, or one plus a couple of protein/carb snacks throughout the morning, is a surefire way to keep your energy levels steady. But it's important for mood, too. "If you consider a child – when they get grumpy or moody in the middle of the morning, you wouldn't think, 'Are they worried about something?'," Marber says. "You'd think they haven't eaten. But with adults, we try to power through. And that's the wrong approach."
From a psychological perspective, hunger puts a huge strain on us. We beat ourselves up for wanting food outside of set mealtimes. Marber believes this results in a "feast-or-famine, boom-or-bust way of eating", which only leads to feeling miserable.
Mood can be affected by the things you put in your mouth, too. Louise Chunn, the editor of Psychologies magazine, says: "Eating the right breakfast does more than just boost your energy, it has psychological ramifications, too, for your mood, and for your attitude to healthy food for the rest of the day."
"Nothing works straight away," says Marber, "but things that change your mood – as in, if you have it for breakfast, you can expect to feel slightly different – are too much carbs, refined sugar and caffeine. These affect your glucose levels indirectly through the action of adrenaline – caffeine mimics the effects of stress, for example – and they change your mood and behaviour, at the time and afterwards."
After forcing your glucose levels to rocket rapidly, your morning coffee and those sugar-laced cereals soon make your blood-sugar levels crash, leaving you with cravings for more caffeine, more sugar and more simple carbs. And so the cycle goes on and on and on.
Break the cycle
But a decent breakfast can break this negative cycle. The body is left satisfied until lunchtime, or until the next protein/carb snack. And the mind is set up differently too.
Starting the day with a healthy meal means we're more likely to eat well for the rest of the day, says Zoë Harcombe, author of The Obesity Epidemic (zoeharcombe.com). And on the flipside, an unhealthy, or "bad", breakfast makes us more likely to eat junk. "We all have this good-and-bad-day mentality," she says. "If you say you're only going to have porridge for breakfast, and you end up having porridge and a croissant, you think, 'I've ruined it now'. So, today might as well be a bad day, and you'll eat badly again until the next morning."
Marber agrees, and suggests the effect is even worse at weekends – have a greasy fry-up first thing on Saturday morning, and you probably won't eat properly until Monday morning. And as weekends make up a pretty decent chunk of our lives, that's a lot of time to spend eating badly.
So, even if you've never bothered slotting breakfast into your routine before, or you're an out-the-door-with-a-slice-of-toast-type eater, perhaps it's time to reconsider your morning meal. Because if slapping a layer of salmon pâté, or adding a sprinkle of seeds, is all it takes to make your day easier, then surely it's worth a try
The energy option
Transform your regular breakfast into a mood-boosting, energy-raising meal by making these small changes
Instead of Slice of white toast and jam
Try Slice of wholemeal toast, rye toast or oatcakes with any of the following: scrambled, poached or boiled eggs, smoked salmon, smoked haddock, fish pâté, peanut butter, baked beans, houmous and grated cheese
Instead of Fruit yoghurt
Try Live bio natural yoghurt with chopped fresh fruits or raisins, and seeds, nuts or oat flakes
Instead of Bowl of porridge and honey
Try Half a bowl of oat porridge mixed with half a bowl of plain yoghurt, chopped fresh fruit or raisins, and seeds or nuts
Instead of Bowl of cornflakes or sugar puffs
Try Bowl of cereal (not sugared or with honey), chopped fresh fruit or raisins, and seeds or nuts
Instead of Fruit smoothie
Try Smoothie made from plain yoghurt, apple juice and seeds or half a banana, and a few nuts; or a fruit smoothie blended with silken tofu
Instead of Cup of coffee
Try Cup of decaffeinated coffee, decaffeinated tea, green tea, peppermint tea
Instead of Bowl of muesli
Try Low-sugar muesli, chopped fresh fruit and an extra handful of nuts and seeds
Instead of A plain croissant
Try Ham and cheese croissant
Eat right for different situations
A day of stress
Got a big meeting, a taxing family event or a deadline to meet? Even if you won't stick to the protein/carb mix all week, it's vital you do the morning before. Your body needs glucose to run on, otherwise it's forced to rely on adrenaline for energy. That can keep you going for a short time, but it won't last. "Adrenaline is a wild card. It can easily get the better of you," says Ian Marber. "You can feel sort of high from it, almost hysterical and uncontrollable." You also need food with a high level of B vitamins, magnesium, and vitamin C to get your brain working properly. Try extra brazil nuts for magnesium, fortified cereals for B vitamins, and oranges and kiwi fruit for vitamin C.
Off to the gym
Exercise on an empty stomach and you'll burn off fat cells to provide energy, so the myth goes. But it's not so, and eventually this method will turn counterproductive. "At first, glycogen is used, then adrenaline, so you might get a bit of potential fat loss, but it's not quite that simple," explains Marber. "The more often you lay down fat and try to dip into it, the less likely it will be that your fat cells will give their fat up." So go for an apple or banana before your early-morning workout, then have an second breakfast post-gym.
The full version of this feature appears in the March issue of Psychologies magazine, out tomorrow.