What Really Makes a Better Breakfast?

It isn’t very surprising that a sugary snack isn’t as filling as a healthier alternative, but did you know that the same foods can differ in how satisfying they are, simply because you prepared them differently? Let’s look at breakfasts. Oatmeal is a classic – hearty, filling, and nutritious, it ticks all the boxes and can keep you satisfied for hours. If on Monday you ate a bowl of oatmeal and fruit, and on Tuesday you went with a quick and easy bowl of cereal, you’d feel the urge to start snacking much earlier than on Monday morning.  

What causes such discrepancies between two breakfasts of equal volume? The first culprit is sugar, which cereal – even a lot of those which purport to be healthy – is loaded with. When consumed, sugar is converted into glucose within minutes, which raises blood and heart pressure and increases mental awareness. Your taste receptors release feel-good hormones which provide the addictive sugar high, but these pleasant effects wear off quickly as the body begins to process the glucose in an attempt to eliminate it from the bloodstream, a process which results in the creation of insulin. However, insulin overproduction leads to low blood glucose, which causes mood swings, sudden energy slumps and negatively affected sleep, earning the name ‘sugar crash’. Imagine enduring this cycle every morning! No wonder you want a big lunch and plenty of snacks throughout your day.

The second factor is carbohydrates – the more overly processed the carb, the faster it is absorbed, which isn’t necessarily a good thing. For an example, let’s pit bread against spaghetti. Both are made from wheat and neither contain added sugar. It stands to reason, then, that consuming the same amount of calories of each would produce the same effect on the body, yes? No. The former is a higher-glycaemic food, while the latter is lower-glycaemic. Spaghetti, while undergoing a certain amount of processing, is at the end of the day a uniformly dense portion of wheat carbs, while bread contains many tiny air bubbles, which means the body can break it down much faster. So while the longer-to-digest spaghetti strands provide the body with a sustained, slow rose in blood sugar, the speedily broken-down bread provides a spike in blood sugar, which leads to an insulin spike and a ‘sugar crash’ – even though you didn’t consciously eat any sugar! This crash then drives the blood sugar levels down, triggering a hunger response, which then leads to the cravings and the ingestion of additional calories, and if more high-glycaemic foods are eaten, this leads to a vicious cycle. It’s essentially as though you didn’t eat anything at all – which leads to problems when you consider that those calories are still annoyingly present and therefore essentially wasted.

So if these two examples are made from the same thing – wheat – how are you supposed to tell what will give you that sustained, slow release of energy that you want? It all comes down to the structure of the food. The more highly processed the ingredients are, the faster fat and carbohydrate absorption becomes, leading to the body essentially burning through all of that energy all at once. So, even if you ate what you thought was an excellent and filling meal, your body is already burning through it in a flash, and you’ll be hungry again in no time at all. This is a prime reason as to why people whose diets are very heavy in ultra-processed foods are more likely to be overweight or obese, because their bodies are burning through all that food so fast they keep on eating to compensate – but those excess calories soon add up.

Well, how can we combat this? By being conscious of the forms of the foods we choose to eat. Let’s go back to our oatmeal and cereal comparison. For our cereal, lets pick a supermarket muesli, which looks healthy but more often than not contains quite a bit of sneaky sugar. These mueslis tend to be made from instant oats, which are whole oats that have been pressed, rolled and otherwise pummelled into extremely thin fragments. The sugar (both added and from dried fruits, coconut, nuts etc) gives you that instant high, while the overly processed form of the oats means the body burns through them in a flash, leaving you hungry again much sooner than you might have expected. Now let’s look at our oatmeal, which is made from rolled oats and topped with fresh fruits. Now, the fruits have sugar in them, but it’s a natural unprocessed sugar in a far smaller amount than their dried counterparts from the muesli, and are full of fibre along with limited carbohydrates which provides the body with a nice slow rise of blood sugar – exactly what we want to keep us full. We get the same phenomenon in our rolled oats, which being much less processed takes the body much longer to digest the carbs.

The end goal for any persons seeking to keep themselves full for longer would be to actively consume foods that have been processed as little as possible, and contain little to no added sugar, encompassing most fresh fruits and vegetables, good sources of protein, and foods that are in as whole a state as possible. In carbohydrate form, this would be choosing brown rice, bread and wheat products, choosing wholegrain and high fibre labelled items, and eating smaller portions of dense, whole foods rather than large portions of finely processed foods. Oatmeal is perfect for this – a smaller portion is both lower in calories and carbohydrates, and yet will provide the body with such a sustained release of energy as to control insulin production, blood glucose levels, excess calorie intake, and provide the body with essential nutrients, making oats the perfect breakfast choice.

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