With the end of summer comes the return to routine for many. Your kids are going back to school, and your work schedule may change to fit. Or you may be returning to teach or take classes of your own. Things can get pretty hectic – and unfortunately, eating habits may suffer. You may have already noticed that kids (and adults) who don’t get a good breakfast can have problems with learning, maintaining good behaviour and attention span, experience fluctuations in energy levels and mood, and diminished overall performance during the day.
But what do I mean when I say they don’t get a good breakfast? This can mean they’re having a poor breakfast of too many sugary and artificially-flavoured/coloured/preserved food products, not enough food, or no food at all.
Let’s first look at the scenario where no breakfast is eaten. When you first wake up, your body’s levels of the stress hormone cortisol begin to rise. This leads to a release of insulin and a drop in blood sugar, in turn triggering hunger-stimulating hormone ghrelin. Once you eat, blood sugar and insulin levels should return to normal, and cortisol should come down as well. If you don’t eat, cortisol remains high, blood sugar levels remain low, and insulin stores fat instead. Translation: increased sensitivity to stress, low energy, and weight gain.
But it must be better to eat something instead of nothing, right?
Yes – and no.
Yes, because it balances the hunger-hormones and gives you energy to start your day. No, because the type of food you eat is also important.
Let’s say you start your day with a bowl of brightly-coloured, sugar-coated cereal in skim milk with a glass of fruit juice. Because this breakfast is so sweet with little to no fat or protein, it causes a spike in blood sugar levels, and the insulin response produces a quick drop in those levels. This means a spike in energy (the “sugar high”), and a crash soon after. Not long after that, you’ll be hungry again, and probably sleepy, too. In addition to the sugar, those brightly-coloured O’s are getting those colours from artificial chemicals such as tartrazine (yellow #5) and red dye, and the juice may contain preservatives like sodium benzoate. These chemicals have been shown to produce a response in children that shortens attention span and may spur undesirable behaviour such as tantrums and defiance. On top of that, there may be undiagnosed food sensitivities to some of the other ingredients in that breakfast – milk and wheat, for example, are ranked high among the top allergenic foods today – that can also contribute to behavioural fluctuations.
So what is a good breakfast? And how can you make sure you and your family are getting it on these busy days?
A proper nourishing breakfast should consist of a balance of the macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates, and fat. The carbs, as I already mentioned, are important for providing energy, while the protein and fat help sustain the release of that energy over a longer period. Choosing complex carbs over sugary ones contributes to this sustained release.
A classic, easy-to-make example of a balanced breakfast is oatmeal made with nuts and seeds. The oats provide soluble fibre, which is an easy-to-digest complex carb, while the nuts and seeds provide protein as well as healthy fats like omega-3, omega-6, and plant-based saturated fat. Steel-cut oats take a little longer to cook than rolled or “quick-cook” oats, and tend to be higher in nutrients like fibre, iron, and B vitamins, but quick-cook oats are still a good choice. Check out my recipe for Banana Nut Bread Oatmeal to get some ideas. Be sure to get plain organic oats, rather than the single-serve, sugar- and flavour-laced “instant” packets. You can then control the toppings and create your own delicious, healthy oatmeal recipes. That said, if you choose to go the “instant” route, choose organic varieties like Nature’s Path for a healthier packaged option.
If you want to get the goodness of oatmeal, but are still pressed for time in the mornings, try making oatmeal for yourself and your family in a slow-cooker overnight, or combine your ingredients in a jar and put it in the fridge to make it into a raw overnight cereal parfait that you can just grab-and-go.
Some cafés have started offering their own individual cups of oatmeal with your choice of toppings so you can get it on-the-go. If you go with this option, try to choose nuts or seeds as a topping, and either skip or go easy on sugary toppings like brown sugar, which you may receive in a packet that can contain upwards of a tablespoon of the stuff. Instead, hit the milk bar and sprinkle on cinnamon and nutmeg, honey or cane sugar, even a splash of cream if you like. If you're dairy-free, you may be able to ask the barista to pass you the soy or almond milk from behind the counter.
For those who are gluten-sensitive, -intolerant, or celiac, you may find that you tolerate certified gluten-free oats, which are becoming easier to find in grocery stores. Bob’s Red Mill and Only Oats are a couple of brands to look for.
Other ways to get the goodness of oatmeal into your morning without making porridge:
- Make breakfast cookies. Stick to recipes that don’t call for much sugar. I like Sarah Kramer’s recipe for Simple Oatmeal Cookies in her cookbook “La Dolce Vegan!” – I use blackstrap molasses instead of sugar and coconut oil instead of vegan margarine in this recipe. The cookies come out flavourful but not too sweet. Add dried cranberries or goji berries, shredded carrots, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, and spices to make an easy morning treat.
- Make oatmeal muffins. Again, you can cram a lot of goodness into an unassuming oatmeal muffin. Check out my recipe for Banana Chai Chocolate Chip Muffins for inspiration.
- Add oats to a breakfast smoothie. I like this Apple Pie Smoothie posted on the Vega website. The flavours of fall in a cup!
You now have no excuses. Get a good breakfast and go take on your day!