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What is Nutrition: Debunking Common Breakfast Ideas  

Director Cardiology, Fortis Escorts Hospital
Jul 29, 2018 4:20 AM 6 min read

In this article I would like to review some items which have over time become almost synonymous with our daily morning routine.


Considering that their nutritional value is hardly questioned, it becomes worthwhile to assess whether they really make for a healthy breakfast.


I talk of cereals, the much-loved bread & jam, pancakes with maple syrup and of course, the daily glass of fresh or canned juice. Eggs, another important constituent, has been covered extensively in a previous article.


Breakfast is our first meal of the day and an important one – it kicks-off our mornings with an energetic and refreshing feeling. It must be tasty and wholesome to keep our batteries charged till lunch.


Cereals have long been perceived as a healthy meal, though the ones vouching for them are usually multi-national food manufacturing companies. Cereals are rich in sugar and refined carbs, and thus have a high glycemic index (GI).


GI is a number that tells us the effect of a particular food item in raising a person's blood sugar level 2 hours after consuming it (for reference glucose in its purest form has a glycaemic index of 100).


Cereals are artificially enriched with vitamins and minerals to make them appear healthy – that’s to divert people's attention from their impact on actual blood sugar.


To give you an idea of its impact, the GI for cornflakes is 81, in comparison to GI of 59-65 for table sugar, GI 68 for a bar of Mars and GI 41 for a bar of Snickers (most chocolates weigh in at around GI 40-45). 


Further, most people add sugar (GI 59-65 in different labs) or honey (GI 61) to cereals to supplement their taste, which makes it even worse. Be it cornflakes, shredded wheat cereal (GI 67), or chocolate flavoured flakes – they are all unhealthy and not advisable for daily consumption, especially for those who want to lose weight.


Oats have been thought to be healthy (GI of rolled oats porridge is 55), the steel-cut variety (i.e. the type of oatmeal processed by chopping the whole oat groat into several pieces, rather than rolled) being perhaps lesser still – about GI 50-55. But the oatmeal variety usually available for instant porridge has a GI of 79, and is as bad as cornflakes. Quinoa at GI 53 is perhaps the healthiest grain one can eat in the morning, if at all.
What is Nutrition: Debunking Common Breakfast Ideas  

Bread is another staple in our breakfast menu, usually complemented with butter, jam or Eggs. Bread has the rare distinction of raising blood sugar  even more than table sugar. 


2 slices of bread increase blood sugar levels more than consuming 2 table spoons of sugar!


When diabetics consume bread instead of cereal, they are worsening their condition. With increasing knowledge, people are switching to “healthier” breads - whole wheat, atta and multigrain breads. As they all have significant quantities of maida flour and little “enriching” components, they differ very little with respect to their glycemic indices.
What is Nutrition: Debunking Common Breakfast Ideas  


GI of White bread = 73

GI of Whole wheat bread = 74

GI of Specialty grain bread = 53

GI of Chapati = 52


Jams are obviously very rich in sugar. All in all, this combination is very diabetogenic and should be avoided, regardless of the type of bread.


Pancakes with maple syrup or honey are just as bad – full of wheat flour and sugar, and probably equally effective in raising blood sugar. Honey is better than table sugar; it has more flavour as well as some useful nutrients. Sugar has none. However, even honey is not desirable if you aim to lose weight.
What is Nutrition: Debunking Common Breakfast Ideas  

Juices, especially Orange juice, has been long considered as the healthiest part of one’s morning meal. Fresh juice is usually the preferred choice, with canned juice as a viable back-up. The latter is simply a sweetened beverage with no real health benefit (even the vitamins in canned juices are “added” making them non-comparable to naturally occurring vitamins). Fresh juice is overall a better option, considering it comprises of natural nutrients.


However, the sugar load of even fresh juice is much higher than that of fruits. For instance, 1 glass of orange juice has 4 oranges worth of sugar, without much fiber content. Thereby the sugar intake through fresh juice is more concentrated, leading to a higher glycemic load.


No wonder, a review of studies involving over 4 lakh individuals revealed a higher tendency to developing diabetes in people drinking a serving of 100% fresh fruit juice daily, although fruits themselves came through as very beneficial.
What is Nutrition: Debunking Common Breakfast Ideas  

But what is the harm of consuming sugary foods in the morning – don’t we need to be at our most energetic self at that time?


Here is how our metabolism pans out – sugar and refined carbs form the most easily digestible food (which are fully digested in 2-3 hours at most). Consuming these will result in a “sugar high”, complemented by good taste and an immediate sense of satisfaction. However, a couple of hours later our blood sugar will crash, making us crave for a snack i.e. the typical mid-morning snack with tea/coffee. The snack would be as expected partaken resulting in another release of energy, lasting for a couple of more hours. If one manages to take lunch meanwhile, all is seemingly well. However, in case of a delay, one becomes irritable, snappy, and tired. This cycle repeats itself through the day with peaks and troughs ranging across enthusiasm and listlessness, adding to a perennial fatigue by end of the day!


But this does not have to be! Breakfast needs to be energising as well as satiating. One shouldn’t be desperately looking for a cookie by 11am. And this can be done by replacing sugar rich foods with food containing proteins, fats, and fibre.


For those who like them, Eggs are amongst the healthiest and tastiest of foods (glycemic index of 0). They can be had boiled, poached, scrambled, fried or taken as an omelet. As discussed in a previous article, 1-2 whole Eggs are safe for long term consumption and make for a very filling meal. Other options are whole milk (especially for children), unsweetened yoghurt, cheese (cottage or processed), lassi, salads, and sprouts. Fruits taken whole have a lower glycemic index (usually GI < 40), as do nuts and seeds (GI < 20), which have the healthiest fats with good quality proteins. Nuts help constitute a very sumptuous meal, following which, one will rarely be hungry at tea time or look for a snack.
What is Nutrition: Debunking Common Breakfast Ideas  

Of course, tea or coffee (ideally unsweetened, had black or with a small amount of milk) are good substitutes for juice. There are several large studies demonstrating their protective effect in preventing heart diseases. The best beverage, of course, is water, which must be had in sufficient amounts daily.What is Nutrition: Debunking Common Breakfast Ideas  

In summary, popular carb-rich breakfast comprising cereals, bread and juices should be avoided; eggs, dairy, salads, sprouts, whole fruits, nuts and seeds are much better options. Tea and coffee can be safely consumed (best taken unsweetened and black), along with water.


And so that life is not dull and dreary without bread and pancakes – do enjoy one cheat day per week that gets rid of our cravings.


This is a recurring column published every Sunday under the title: What is Nutrition. Next week I will do a deep-dive on “Intermittent Fasting vs. Small Frequent Meals”. Stay tuned. 


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