01.03.2007

Smart start

Breakfast is crucial to good health, for all ages. But it also has to be nutritious and that's where the marketing message can lead us astray, says nutritional toxicologist Dr Peter Dingle.

Breakfast is crucial to good health, for allages. But it also has to be nutritious and that's wherethe marketing message can lead us astray, says nutritionaltoxicologist Dr Peter Dingle.

ASmart Start The word breakfast simply means "breakingthe fast". Since breakfast is the meal we eat afterour longest period of rest it has special significanceto our metabolism. Just as getting enough sleep is importantto a person's performance during the day, eating a goodbreakfast is equally important. It provides the vitalnourishment and energy we need to start and carry outour day.

In today's fast-paced society, breakfast tends to beneglected or substituted with highly processed foodsstripped of nutritional goodness. This corresponds withunprecedented obesity, chronic disease and a cultureof fast and busy lifestyles. The beneficial effectsof breakfast include physical performance, psychologicalhealth and cognitive ability. A morning meal can decreasehunger throughout the morning resulting in less snacking.Research has also suggested that breakfast consumptionis associated with lower mortality and reduced susceptibilityto physical illness. In one study, people who ate breakfastevery day tended to have high energy and were relaxedrather than tense. The study showed a link between breakfasthabits and measures of stress and emotional distress.

Regular consumption of breakfast is associated withhigher intelligence scores in primary school childrenthrough to the elderly. It improves memory and cognitivefunction, contributing positively to mood and mentalhealth.

Breakfast can enhance mood through the supply of micronutrientsand amino acids in the cellular biochemistry cycle.Protein is an essential building block for your bodyand mind. Proteins are made up of smaller units calledamino acids. One essential function for amino acidsis in the construction of the brain's neurotransmitters- the chemicals that tell your brain what to do. Withoutthe right amino acids in every main meal (three mealsper day) your brain does not receive the proper messages.It cannot produce serotonin, the "feel good chemical"if there is none of the amino acid tryptophan; it cannotproduce dopamine, the stabilising brain chemical, ifthere is no tyrosine. If cysteine and methionine arenot present, it can't produce taurine, the calming neurotransmitter.Without these amino acids and the right digestion ina healthy gut, your brain gets lots of mixed messagesand you can experience increased incidence of chronicmental illnesses including depression, anxiety and ADHD.Another important aspect of breakfast is that becauseit is harder to keep an eye on the food kids eat awayfrom home - at school or at their friends' homes - itis more important than ever for kids to have a particularlynutritious breakfast. For some children, this may bethe most nutritious meal of the day, and is thereforeessential to long-term health and the avoidance of chronicdisease.

While eating breakfast is crucial to maintaining goodhealth, eating the right type of food is equally important.Research and the supermarket shelves show the ubiquityof over-processed breakfast foods. Breakfast food processinghas fundamentally altered seven crucial nutritionalcharacteristics of the ancestral diet: fibre content,glycemic load, fatty acid composition, macronutrientcomposition, micronutrient density, acid-base balanceand sodium-potassium ratio. Research has also shownthat processing of cereals and bakery products may enhancetheir allergenic potential.

These foods are highly refined, low nutrient levelcereals, and their associated high Glycemic Index (GI),salt and fat put unnecessary additional stress on thebody and increase the risk of chronic disease such asobesity, diabetes and some forms of cancer.

Many processed cereals have very high sodium content,such as typical Corn Flakes with 780mg/100grams of food- about 70 times the level of oats. Sugar is also addedin large amounts to many cereals, especially those aimedat the children's market. Some of these cereals maycontain up to 50 per cent sugar by weight. Despite theclaims made by many breakfast food companies, thereis little proof that any benefit is gained from eatingtheir processed cereals. Starting the day with a breakfastof high fat, high sodium and high sugar overloads thebody with adrenaline, resulting in "poor concentration,insomnia, fluctuating "highs" and "lows",energy drops, food cravings, uneven weight, feelingsof stress and inevitably, chronic life-threatening illness."1.Processed or ready-to-eat breakfast foods which arelow in nutrients and high in salt, sugar and carbohydrateshave been associated with obesity, heart failure, stressand mental health problems.

A largely ignored concept is that processing also destroysthe nutrient value or density of the foods. Grains canlose somewhere between 51.1 per cent and 93.8 per centof their vitamin and mineral content when they are processed.Putting back a few B vitamins does not provide a substitutefor what has been removed. However, although fortificationmay make up for some nutrient inadequacy, the questionthat should be asked is why has it become a normal requirement?While fortification has benefits, under no circumstancesshould the fortification of foods replace real nutrition.The control of micronutrient deficiencies might seema realisable goal, but attention should be given towhy the need for food fortification has occurred inthe first place.

Fortification also raises the issue of "with what"to fortify. Why is it so often limited to just a fewnutrients when it is well established that many nutrientswork best combined with an array of other nutrients?The breakfast cereal industry has been leading the wayin misleading information for decades, making spuriousand confusing claims about the health benefits of theirproducts: misleading labelling with claims about lowfat, no added sugar, no cholesterol, etcetera. Somebreakfast foods may even meet these claims but manyare still junk food with little or no nutritional valueother than lots of calories. Most of the processed breakfastfoods are no better than takeaway junk food; in factsome are even worse.

The strong vested interests in the food industry havehad a major impact on what we eat for breakfast, aswell as our daily nutritional requirements. The foodpyramid we all grew up with was developed by Kellogg's,the grain industry and the US Department of Agriculturein the early 1950s. Sure, it has changed a little, butnot enough yet to reflect what we really should be eating.The Harvard School of Public Health has issued a scathingcriticism of the new food pyramid.

Despite all the evidence and in the face of globalconcern over chronic disease and obesity, these largemulti-national companies appear to be deliberately confusingthe public with "nutritional" claims. Theirony of this marketing is that these companies knowthat many of their products have virtually no dietaryfibre and no nutritional value. It appears then thatthe uninformed or unaware consumer (especially children)is at the losing end, while the processed breakfastfood and advertising companies responsible for the deceptiveand disturbingly persuasive advertisements win outrightwith huge profits.

Rather than taking a holistic approach to nutritionclaims, manufacturers have bombarded consumers withfalse claims and created confusion among consumers andgenerated international calls for regulation of thecereal industry.

Marketers have developed a language used on packaging,which cleverly leaves consumers confused over the nutritionalbenefits of products. For example, "% fat free"is almost twice as common as the term "low fat"on the packages of breakfast food, noting that the quantitativeterm "% fat free" may be seen as more attractiveto consumers. Diet-conscious consumers may fail to checkthat the product may be full of sugar, salt or carbohydrates,which will quickly turn to fat in their systems andmay have grave health implications. Or even "noadded sugar" means little as the foods rapidlyconvert to sugar in the mouth. Given the dearth of regulationpertaining to these statements, consumers make easyprey for misleading claims when browsing the isles ofsupermarkets.

In a survey of 138 cereals I carried out with my students,the total number of nutrient claims across all surveyedproducts totalled 398. On average, three claims on everypacket. The most common claim was "Good sourceof iron" (66%), despite the fact that the ironis not readily absorbed. The main problem is that themost bio-available iron compounds are water-solubleand these often lead to the development of unacceptablecolour and flavour changes in food.

When water-soluble compounds are added to cereal flours,they often cause rancidity and, in low-grade salt, theyrapidly lead to colour formation. So the cereal manufacturersinclude a less soluble form but still make the claim"Good source of iron."

These problems are often exacerbated by nutritionalprograms placing too much emphasis on commercially processedfoods, which for many social and economic reasons arenot appropriate for the poor and may, in fact, be contributingto their deterioration in nutritional status. Nutritionprograms and policy often place too much emphasis onlow cost foods. The limitations and potential dangersof relying on commercially produced, low cost foodsto reduce or eliminate malnutrition have neither beenadequately investigated nor put into perspective.

My recommendations are to choose a healthy cooked breakfastwhich includes vegetables like tomatoes and spinach,plus mushrooms, beans, fish and eggs; or choose a porridgeor muesli with nuts, seeds and oats. Oats overwhelminglycome up as the only commercial grain you should be havingfor breakfast, simply because they are the least processed.I also occasionally make brown rice porridge with lotsof nuts and fruit.

It is only the Western countries, with the highestlevels of chronic disease in the world, that eat processedfood for breakfast. Let's change that and start theday smart and healthy.

Recommendations:

Encourage Australian children to eat breakfast.Discourage children from eating highly processedbreakfast foods often high in salt and sugar and lowin total nutrients.Eat nutrient dense foodsEncourage children to eat oats or other unprocessedfoods for breakfast.Encourage children to eat a cooked breakfast.Ensure that children have adequate protein (aminoacids) in their breakfasts.

Reference 1. Holford P. 2004. NewOptimum Nutrition Bible London: Piatkus Peter Dingleis Associate Professor in Health and the Environmentat Murdoch University, Perth, Western Australia

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