Lies they told you about breakfast

Updated: 04 August, 2020 07:43 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

Ever been told it was the most important meal of the day? That you should eat lots of protein? Here's my question back - did cavemen eat breakfast?

Representation pic/Getty Images
Representation pic/Getty Images

C Y GopinathI never figured out why they call meals square. Or who decided that a fellow needs three square meals a day. Nothing in an Indian meal remotely approaches squareness — think thalis, dosas, chapatis, katoris, papads. Indians need round meals, not square ones.

More recently, I've been obsessing over a really cosmic question: who decided breakfast was the most important meal of the day?

Breakfast was not a thing when I was a schoolboy in Calcutta. Minutes before the school bus arrived, my nick-of-time mother would have a ghastly egg nog ready and I'd have to scarf it down without barfing it up. Real hunger pangs didn't come till around 10 am, and hot, fresh singadas with tamarind chutney at the school canteen were exactly what the body needed.

I don't know when I, like the rest of humanity, unquestioningly bought into the myth that breakfast was a specially important meal but clearly it was before I learned to think critically. Once you condition your body to breakfast, it obligingly gets hungry shortly after you wake up, priming you for "the most important meal of the day".

The best way to dismantle the breakfast myth is by asking a simple question: Who stands to benefit if the world believed that breakfast was the day's supreme meal?

The answer is a counter-question: who makes their profits from selling breakfast cereals, cornflakes, oats, pancake mixes and so on?

I did a little digging and found that breakfast was first called "the most important meal of the day" in a 1944 advertising campaign by General Foods to sell their breakfast product called Grape Nuts. Promoting cereals by promoting breakfast was good for the bottom line.

Earlier, in 1898, after botching several attempts to make something called granola, the good Dr John Harvey Kellogg, a man of God with severe views about sex, had accidentally flaked the wheat berry, creating corn flakes. Dr Kellogg also believed that eating his growing range of cereals would stop boys from masturbating and reduce the incidence of sex. Fortunately, these claims were left out of the advertising.

Let's take a trip to a time before corn flakes and breakfast cereals. What did people eat in the morning? Often nothing until mid-day when hunger pangs hit or else leftovers from the night before, which could have ranged from eggs and pancakes to boiled chicken or beef steaks.

In medieval Europe, breakfast was a rich person's luxury. Ancient Romans stayed fit by eating just once a day, and gladiators apparently ate only plant-based foods. Native Americans ate bits of food throughout the day and sometimes fasted for days at a time.

The best advice for eating to stay fit probably comes from the Indian Ayurvedic tradition's three simple rules:

Never eat before sunrise or after sunset.

Eat once or twice daily — a light morning meal, and, if possible, the main meal before sunset.

Eat when you're hungry and your previous meals have been digested.

Notice: The word breakfast is missing.

The absurdity of breakfast becomes clear if you imagine yourself as a cave-dwelling hunter-gatherer in prehistoric times. No fridge, no pantry, no milk, no sugar, no fire and no house lights. Having breakfast would have required going on a hunt to catch a rodent or monkey and skinning the carcass before finding tinder and flint to start a fire and grill the monkey. Then, if you were still hungry, you got to hit the "most important meal of the day". Except that it would probably have been close to dinner by then.

Breakfast would have been a day-long project for a caveman. This video of a Hadze family in East Tanzania making 'breakfast' says it all:

The waters are muddied by scientific evidence funded by the Kelloggs and Nestles, and papers by paid scientists who will claim whatever they are instructed to claim.

Their cherry-picked science has claimed that people who maintained a healthy weight ate breakfast. Not true. A University of Alabama study last year with 300 participants who were randomly assigned to eat breakfast, skip it or just follow their normal routines found no difference in weight loss among the three groups.

More recent advice says that the value of breakfast might change as you age. Younger children who eat breakfast apparently do better at studies. However, skipping breakfast seems to help some adults. When you fast from dinner one night straight through to lunch the next day, your brain gets biochemically challenged. It finds new energy sources that reduce inflammation in the brain's tissues.

Me, I've decided to dump corn flakes. I'm switching to a Peruvian breakfast made from fish juice, lime, onion, salt and a generous sprinkling of hot pepper. They call it leche de tigre. Tiger's milk.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at
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First Published: 04 August, 2020 06:48 IST

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