Kickstart your day with breakfast

Experts agree: breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Unfortunately, many of us don't take this message to heart, making breakfast the most frequently skipped meal. In this way, we compromise our energy levels, mental ability, heart health and weight.

Breakfast is the most frequently skipped meal in Europe – and there is reason to believe that South Africans are following suit.

Europeans skip 18% of their breakfasts, and British consumers lose out on 30% of their morning meals, according to a recent study. Further analysis shows that 21% of men don't eat breakfast five or more times a week. At an average of 8%, women are less likely to miss the meal.

On our own turf, research has shown that 10% of South African children skip breakfast. Adults are also missing out on this important meal – probably due to lack of time.

And while breakfast is skipped more often, snacking seems to play a much bigger role.

In the European study, 67% of respondents listed hunger as the most important reason for eating snacks. This indicates that these people are not getting sufficient food and nutrients from meals such as breakfast and are, therefore, getting hungry more often during the day. Unwrapping an energy bar, popping a cold drink can and tearing open a packet of crisps has become a quick fix.

Why is breakfast important?

  • A healthy weight. Eating breakfast boosts the metabolism, helping you to burn more calories in general. Also, when people skip breakfast, they tend to overeat for the rest of the day. One study found that people who went without breakfast were at four times greater risk of obesity, compared to those who started the day off right. Dieters who eat breakfast also find it easier to stick to their weight-loss regimes.
  • A healthy heart. Eating breakfast is associated with fewer weight problems, which in turn is associated with a lower risk of heart disease and diabetes.
  • Sustained energy levels. If you don't eat something after a 12-14 hour fast following an evening meal, blood sugar levels remain low in the morning. This may lead to tiredness, lethargy, lack of concentration, irritability, poor work performance and an increased tendency to make mistakes. If your blood sugar levels are stable, you'll not only feel better, but you'll also experience less cravings for unhealthy foods.
  • Better cognitive function. Research shows that children who eat breakfast perform better on memory tests. Scholastic performance in children and teens who don't eat breakfast is also much lower than in those that eat a proper balanced meal in the morning.
  • Health in general. Breakfast contributes 30% or more of the essential and protective nutrients to the daily intake. By skipping this important meal, it is difficult to make up for the lack of nutrients such as iron, calcium, the B-vitamins and vitamin C.

Go for:

  • Carbs + protein. Carbohydrates are the body's first and most important source of fuel for everyday living, while the amino acids in protein form the building blocks of your muscles. Carbohydrate-rich foods with a low glycaemic index (GI) will lead to a slow, gradual increase in blood sugar levels throughout the morning, helping to sustain your energy levels without leading to hunger pangs. Add a bit of protein to carbohydrate foods, and the GI of the meal is even lower. Oats is a great low-GI breakfast choice; so is high-fibre cereal – combine it with the protein in milk or yoghurt, and you've got a winning recipe. The protein of an egg combined with the carbohydrates in a slice of whole-grain toast is also a good choice, although eggs shouldn't be eaten more than 3-4 times per week.
  • Low salt. Look for breakfast options that are low in salt/sodium. High salt intake raises blood pressure – a major health threat. While health authorities recommend no more than 6g of salt (2,4g of sodium) per day, most adults who follow a typical western diet get about 9 to 12g. Try to cut salt from this meal.
  • Low fat. Some breakfast cereals, such as certain muesli varieties, are loaded with unhealthy saturated fats and trans fatty acids. These can harm your heart and lead to weight gain. Read those food labels carefully, and make informed choices.
  • High fibre. We should all consume 25-30g of fibre per day to help maintain normal bowel function. Fibre also lowers the GI of a meal, and helps one to feel "full" after a meal, preventing overeating. Add a chopped apple or pear, or any other fruit, to cereal or porridge to increase the fibre content of the meal.

Is coffee OK?
Having coffee with your breakfast probably won't do harm. In fact, the antioxidants in this popular drink might even benefit you in the long run.

But go slow on the sugar and the coffee creamer, using low-fat or fat-free milk instead. Coffee creamer tends to be high in unhealthy fats and, if you're having a proper breakfast, sugar will only add unneccessary calories.

If you do find that coffee affects your heart rhythm in a negative way, it would be better to substitute the java for a cup of Rooibos tea. However, three cups of coffee per day seems to be harmless to most people.

- (Health24, updated September 2010)

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