You may have seen the recent New York Times magazine article featuring what kids eat for breakfast around the world. I was so proud to see Turkey (my home country) being featured since well Turkish breakfast is one of those things that I think should be nominated for UNESCO status à la French gastronomy! That being said, my mouth was also watering at the sight of the Japanese breakfast with its miso soup, grilled salmon and rice (and I was in awe of the presence of natto, if not exactly craving it!).
See, breakfast for us Turks is largely a savory affair which is as far from the continental fare that people start their day here in France as you can imagine. A complete Turkish breakfast spread will typically feature cheese, eggs, olives, tomatoes and cucumbers, clotted cream, sucuk (a kind of spicy beef sausage) as well as honey, bread and jam. Before I became so nutrition-geeky, I used to think of this mainly as an issue of taste but even then it had not escaped me that when I only had a bowl of muesli and fruit juice for breakfast, my stomach would start growling violently only an hour or two into the morning.
Turns out I was definitely onto something. Now that I have a better understanding of digestion, I realize that the way you fuel your body upon waking every day has huge consequences on your health. So now when people come to me with any kind of diet or health inquiry, one of the first questions I am likely to ask them is what they had for breakfast. Allow me to explain.
You see, this one habit may have the biggest consequence on your health on a daily basis.
Here in France especially, it’s relatively easy to talk to people about the virtues of a real food diet over lunch or dinner. Go to any self-respecting bistro and you will have a square meal consisting of an appetizer and main course consisting of seasonal veggies, meat, seafood and good quality dairy, and if you manage to avoid most desserts and bread, you can have a pretty “clean” meal. Even if people don’t eat this way every day at home, at least it’s not a huge challenge to evoke basic real food principles within this context.
But one of the moments where things get ugly for most people is breakfast, whether they realize it or not.
Cold cereal, pasteurized low-fat dairy, toast with jam, croissants and pains au chocolat, bagels, muesli, piece of fruit, orange juice… Nobody in much of the Western world would bat an eyelid at a breakfast spread including these foods. Organic stores just as conventional supermarkets have entire aisles dedicated to breakfast products consisting largely of refined grains and other processed foods. For decades people have been led to believe that grains are a nutritious choice and a perfectly good way to start the day. But this is far from a foregone conclusion and there is much evidence to suggest that refined grains (especially in the quantities commonly consumed in the developed world) can actually be quite harmful to human health.
So you will not be surprised to hear me tell you to avoid refined carbs and the blood-sugar bomb they come with at all costs and fuel your body mostly with what it needs in the morning, which is (drum roll) fat and protein. Let me make it clear here that I am not demonizing carbohydrates as an entire category; we need all three macronutrients (fat, protein and carbs) to survive and thrive. But when you think carbs, think of whole complex real food carbs like starchy and non-starchy vegetables and properly prepared legumes instead of industrial bread, cereal and pasta (organic or not!).
When you consume primarily refined carbohydrates for breakfast and do not include healthy fats and protein with them, they swiftly turn into sugar in the blood to give you a quick surge of energy. But what follows just as quickly is that the high blood sugar comes crashing down, creating that feeling of “I’m gonna kill somebody if I don’t eat something now”… and it’s not even 11 am.
Beyond the inconvenience of an emergency mid-morning snack, blood sugar regulation has far-reaching consequences on your health that can be quite serious: from the obvious like metabolic syndrome and diabetes (and these are not necessarily accompanied by being overweight either) to heart disease, hormonal imbalances and autoimmune conditions like polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and thyroid problems (which can be notoriously difficult to diagnose). What you eat first thing in the morning actually has consequences for your hormone regulation throughout the 24-hour period so that even your insomnia may have its roots in what you had to eat earlier in the day.
So if the idea of this kind of breakfast is really new to you, why don’t you give it a try for a while and see how much more satisfied you are until lunchtime?
Below are a few ideas to get you started but it really doesn’t have to be complicated. Open the fridge, grab some leftovers from dinner, crack an egg or two on it and you’re good to go. Once again, we apply the “real food” rule: if it comes in a box with various health claims, ditch it! If you have to make it out of real ingredients, that’s when we can start getting somewhere. Eating this way for breakfast, followed by having full satisfying meals for lunch and dinner, will go a long way in avoiding the sugar crash and keeping your energy and mood stable throughout the day. Violent pangs of hunger and homicidal feelings between meals is not the normal state of affairs (sorry Snickers!), neither is the afternoon fatigue or slump that you may have grown used to. These feelings may be common in this day and age but that certainly does not make them normal.
Healthy breakfast ideas include:
Eggs, prepared any way you like with healthy fats
Feta cheese and olives (that’s the Turk in me!)
“Dinner for breakfast”: make a 2-egg omelet with sautéd veggies, greens, mushrooms or other leftovers from dinner
Grain-free pancakes or veggie patties topped with fried eggs
“Breakfast salad” with boiled eggs, especially great in the summer. Cut up some fresh vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers… and add the eggs, olive oil and vinegar or lemon juice, maybe some dried or fresh herbs — this is especially quick if you get into the habit of boiling eggs ahead of time.
Soup! Yes you’ve heard that right – think back to the Japanese breakfast. Having a bit of homemade stock in the morning is an extremely good way to start the day – nourishing as well as soothing to the digestive tract.
Buckwheat pancakes with eggs and cheese plus sautéd veggies/leftovers (here’s a good recipe)
Full-fat dairy (cheese, raw milk kefir, yogurt…)
The possibilities are endless really. Just remember, savory is your friend first thing in the morning!