This is the third entry in a series examining the personal challenges to good nutrition. @DrTomSherman or @GUFoodStudies
There is an interesting debate taking place in the scientific literature right now over the risks and benefits of routinely skipping breakfast. All of our lives, we have been told in one form or another that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and that breakfast provides a healthy start to a productive and attentive morning. This argument is strongly supported by a study just published in the journal Circulation that present evidence from a 16-year study of 26,902 middle-aged men that those “who skipped breakfast had a 27% higher risk of coronary heart disease (CHD) compared with men who did not” (relative risk, 1.27; 95% confidence interval, 1.06–1.53). This association was seemingly mediated by body mass index, hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, and diabetes mellitus. The researchers hypothesized that the increased heart disease risk was the result of increased stress, that skipping breakfast “puts a strain on our bodies that over time can lead to insulin resistance, hypercholesterolemia and blood pressure problems, which can then lead to heart disease.” Although I find the evidence in this well-done study to be fairly compelling, I think the explanation for it is not particularly persuasive, and somewhat at odds with the extensive, albeit mixed, literature on fasting. An alternative explanation that men who skip breakfast are also more likely to make poor dietary choices is difficult to correct for. These results contrast with report from a much smaller study published recently in the journal Physiology & Behavior that finds that skipping breakfast may be a healthy way to lose weight. A surprising observation in this study was that skipping breakfast did not result in consuming more calories over the course of the day, as our mothers frequently warned would be the consequence. Breakfast skippers, on average, were hungrier at lunchtime, but ate similar sized lunches as their breakfast-eating companions, and ultimately consumed 400 fewer calories per day. This is not an insignificant number of calories and would be expected to yield meaningful weight loss.
The results of these two studies, which differed extensively in time course and number of subjects, are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but some of their contrasting conclusions are difficult to reconcile; for example, given the association of BMI with coronary heart disease in the Circulation paper, it did not appear that skipping breakfast lead to meaningful weight loss in this group. One explanation might be that skipping breakfast over the short-term, much like embarking on a diet, results in weight loss, but that over time, skipping breakfast leads to changes in eating habits and patterns that are less healthy. Interesting.
The risks and benefits of eating breakfast may be debatable, but the risks associated with eating a breakfast high in sugar and easily digest carbohydrates are very clear. We discussed the consequences of a high glycemic index (GI) diet in an earlier post. High GI foods yield a rapid insulin response that frequently results in a transient hypoglycemia that leads to increased hunger, increased midmorning snacking, and ultimately, hyperlipidemia, weight gain, and elevated risk of insulin resistance and diabetes. And Americans love a sweet breakfast. A multi-billion dollar industry of ready-to-eat breakfast cereals that are almost pure sugar serves as proof, as well as the institutionalized and personal expectations of toast and jam, doughnuts, bagels, sweet rolls, instant oatmeal with brown sugar, toaster pastries, pancakes, waffles and fruit juices as the first meal of the day. The American breakfast, and increasingly, breakfasts worldwide, is the highest glycemic index meal of the day. It does not have to be this way. I will argue that not only is a savory breakfast a healthier choice, but a much tastier and more satisfying choice that will make you feel better and help keep hunger at bay until lunchtime.
It is not that there are no examples of an American savory breakfast: two eggs any style with bacon or sausage and hash brown potatoes is an American classic that was pushed into oblivion during the low-fat, low-cholesterol era of the past 30 years. The same happened to the classic steak and eggs breakfast. The stigmas on these breakfasts remain today. They may be a bit calorically rich for our modern sensibilities, but they still have their place as preparation for a hard days work. There are many worthy successors to this breakfast, however, and I strongly encourage you to try them all, especially those that – at first read – seem to contain a completely inappropriate combination of flavors and tastes for a first thing in the morning meal. I promise that you will be shocked at how delicious these recipes are, and I guarantee that you will feel all the better for it.
Savory Breakfast Recipes:
Despite its reputation as a hearty and wholesome breakfast, oatmeal is typically served so sugared-up that the simple goodness of whole oats is lost. The main culprit is instant oatmeal, a heavily processed, precooked and dried, sweetened abomination that has little in common with whole grain oats. A secondary culprit is the classic oatmeal with brown sugar and raisins; decidedly tasty as it is, our aim is to limit sugar intake at breakfast.
A hulled grain of oat is called a groat, and if an oat groat is cut into 3 or 4 pieces, it becomes steel-cut oats, also frequently known as Irish or pinhead oats. Oats possess such a wonderful nutty taste and welcome chew that I personally enjoy it plain. The main drawback of whole and Irish oatmeal is the relatively long cooking time of 30–40 minutes; time that can be hard to find in the morning. My advice is to prepare a 4–6 serving batch of oatmeal on the weekend and store individual servings in ramekins or sealable containers in the refrigerator (or freezer) for rapid microwave heating when desired; I got this idea from seeing the frozen individual servings of maple-sweetened steel cut oatmeal available at Trader Joe’s.
Mark Bittman introduced me to the idea of savory oatmeal preparations. As much as I love intensely flavored olive and sun-dried tomato tapenades, both store bought and easily prepared homemade versions, the idea of using them with olive oil as a topping for hot oatmeal gave me pause. Seriously, I could not believe how wonderful this combination tastes.
- 1 serving of hot steel cut oatmeal
- Drizzle with a fruity virgin olive oil
- 1–2 tablespoons of black or green olive tapenade, olive & sun-dried tomato tapenade, or pesto
Rather than mix everything together, as the photo above suggests, I prefer to sample the tapenade with each spoonful of oatmeal. Enjoy.
I have friends who returned from a visit home to see her parents in Croatia, and brought with them as a gift to my family a bottle of freshly pressed olive oil from their island fig and olive tree orchard. I had just removed a pair of baguettes from the oven when the doorbell rang. A bowl of ripe avocados sat expectantly on the kitchen counter. The confluence of events could not have been more perfect for making avocado on toast, one of the more sublime and satisfying tastes imaginable. The fresh Croatian olive oil was a revelation – aromatic and fruity – we could have sipped it from a wine glass. My worldview of Croatia as a country weary from its war for independence was instantly transformed into one of a Mediterranean paradise. Similarly, avocado on toast has transformed from a light dinner into a welcome lunch and finally to a satisfying breakfast. A single avocado smashed on two slices of crusty toasted bread, smothered in olive oil (think gravy), and sprinkled with salt and freshly ground pepper is as easy to prepare as it is easy to eat. And it stays with you without a feeling of fullness. Enjoy.
Wheat berries, like oat groats, are the hulled grains of wheat. Although I had previously used boiled wheat berries in salads, I had not thought to eat them on their own until I read a recipe from Mark Bittman many years ago when he was on his own journey into savory breakfasts. Soy sauce, sesame oil and green onions are not flavors that many Americans expect to wake to, but this particular combination, accompanying the hearty bite of wheat berries, is surprisingly delicious, hearty, and exotic.
- 1 1/2 – 2 cups wheat berries
- 1–4 dashes toasted sesame oil
- 5-8 dashes soy sauce
- 1 scallion, trimmed and chopped
Cover the wheat berries generously with lightly salted water and boil gently for 40–50 minutes until tender. Ideally, you want the berries to be tender, but with a distinct bite. Drain and store covered in the refrigerator for up to a week (although I have successfully kept them for much longer). For breakfast, I scoop a portion into a bowl and microwave it back to room temperature; 20–30 seconds. Sprinkle with dashes of toasted sesame oil, a bit more generously with soy sauce, and top with chopped scallion. Enjoy.
Eggs and nuts suffered unfairly during the low-fat low-cholesterol decades, and both are experiencing an evidence-based resurgence. Although a time-honored tradition at breakfast, the answer for “how do you like your eggs” needs to push beyond the stale “over-easy” and into fresh recipes that highlight the tastes and textures of a well prepared egg.
To purists, the soft-boiled egg exemplifies the taste of pure egg like no other cooking method. But the vagaries of obtaining the perfect egg, with whites firm and silky and a creamy rich yolk, scared many away. Even restaurants fail to offer them. Cook’s Illustrated solved the problem, however, and published a perfect-every-time recipe. Use a digital timer, for these are exact times, not estimates.
- Bring ½ inch water to boil in medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Using tongs, gently place eggs in boiling water (eggs will not be submerged). Cover saucepan and cook eggs for 6½ minutes.
- Remove cover, transfer saucepan to sink, and place under cold running water for 30 seconds. Remove eggs from pan and serve, seasoning with salt and pepper to taste.
Fried egg sandwich
Much like what happened with avocado on toast, in our house, the fried egg sandwich has moved beyond lunch to breakfast. I may abstain from using garlic in the olive oil, the seasoning with Tabasco sauce, and the slice of red onion that grace my luncheon version, but there is something special about the simple tastes of lightly fried eggs between toasted whole grain bread that seems more substantial than the seemingly equivalent fried eggs with a side of toast.
I prefer frying two eggs over medium heat in olive oil, letting the eggs set before breaking the yolks. Turn off the heat once you flip the eggs; the minute spent gathering your bread from the toaster is more than enough to finish the eggs nicely. Salt and pepper.
Slowly cooked eggs at low heat yield a creamy, rich texture that is a significant upgrade from the quick and dry version that so often presents itself as scrambled eggs. The addition of smoked salmon and any of a number of rough chopped herbs enhances it further. Be patient; we are only talking about a few additional minutes, but the difference will be well worth it.
- Crack 2 eggs into a small mixing bowl and whisk.
- Heat a heavy-bottomed nonstick sauté pan over medium-low heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil or butter.
- Add a tablespoon of milk to the eggs and season to taste with salt and pepper. Whisk thoroughly to incorporate a bit of air into the mixture.
- Pour into hot oil or butter and let the eggs cook for up to a minute without stirring to the bottom set.
- With a rubber spatula, gently push one edge of the egg into the center of the pan, while tilting the pan to allow the still liquid egg to flow in underneath. Repeat with the other edges, until the raw egg is gone.
- Turn off the heat and continue gently stirring and turning the egg until all the uncooked parts become firm. Don’t break up the egg, though. Try to keep the curds as large as possible.
- Add an ounce or two of smoked salmon and chopped herbs.
- Transfer to a plate when the eggs are set but still moist and soft. Eggs are delicate, so they’ll continue to cook for a few moments after they’re on the plate.
Many years ago, I started making foods as gifts for the winter holidays, thus beginning a tradition that has produced an increasingly long line of Give Peace A Chance foods, including vanilla extract, Masala chai, Bavarian sweet mustard and trail mix. The first of these is my granola, which has since evolved into a walnut granola. Not only is this a recipe I am extremely proud of, but I have eaten it for breakfast three or four times per week for many years now. The addition of honey makes this recipe not purely savory, but it is not sweet either. Nutty and substantial, it will stay with you until lunch. We are past the fresh peach, nectarine, apricot season, but my memories of granola with fresh fruit and soymilk has me looking forward to next summer already. Note: if shopping where bulk supplies are available, such as a co-op, bring a 1-cup measure so that you can purchase exactly what is needed.
- 6 cups rolled oats
- 1 lb (~4 cups) walnut pieces (Trader Joe’s 1 lb bag of California walnut baking pieces is perfect)
- 1 lb (~4 cups) walnuts, whole and halves (Trader Joe’s 1 lb bag of California walnut halves & pieces is perfect)
- 1 cup unsalted sunflower seeds
- 2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut
- 1 cup canola oil
- 0.75–1 cups honey (using 1 cup honey gives a touch of sweetness)
- 1.5 cups (8 oz) pistachio nutmeats, dry roasted, unsalted (Trader Joe’s)
- 2 cups raisins (plump Flame raisins are ideal)
- 2 cups dried cranberries
- 2 cups dried date pieces, usually found dusted with oat flour
Preheat oven to 325°F. Position the oven racks in the middle and lower middle positions. In a very large bowl, combine oats, walnuts, almonds, sunflower seeds and coconut. Warm the oil and honey in a small pan until thin and runny. Pour over the oat mixture, and mix to coat evenly; the mixture will be quite wet. Spread even layers on two rimmed baking sheets.
Bake for 40 minutes until thoroughly toasted, stirring and scraping the pans every 10-minutes, switching pans between lower and upper racks. Stir in the dried fruit and pistachios while granola is still hot from the oven. Let stand until completely cooled, stirring occasionally to break up large clusters. Store in the freezer in quart-sized zip-lock bags. Makes ~5 quarts.
Peanut butter for breakfast is probably more purely American than any of the other offerings listed here. Peanut butter is the poster child of children’s food – tasty and versatile, as well as inexpensive and ubiquitous. It is the one food I miss most when travelling, especially outside of the U.S. Nuts and nut butters, like eggs, are reappearing on people’s to-eat lists now that the low-fat craze is waning, but also as an increasing body of research shouts their benefits. Although these benefits typically focus on cardiovascular health, only yesterday a study appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, finding that “consumption of vegetable protein, fat, peanut butter, or nuts by older girls may help reduce their risk of benign breast disease as young women”, even among girls with a genetic background for breast disease. It is likely that these findings relate, in part, to the high folate levels found in nuts, as I discussed in an earlier post.
Eating peanut butter on toast, whatever your motivation, is as simple and sustaining a way to start the day as any. Often I will have a small piece of toast with peanut butter early in the morning while waiting for my family to wake on a weekend, only to find that I am no longer hungry when it comes time to prepare a family breakfast. It is that satiating.
For the adventuresome, try a peanut butter and bread & butter pickle sandwich. I am a recent convert to this not-so-secret society of devotees, and all I can say is that I recommend it highly. I have yet to have one for breakfast, however.
Future Topics in the Series:
- Cultivating a taste for sustainable foods: ecology of a foodie
- Informed Eating: Product Labeling
- Nutrition Advice: Research Literature, Media Reports & the Internet
- Food Marketing
- Food Deserts
- Farm Subsidies & Food Policy