Experts in the Media

Jemma O’Hanlon – ABC Health & Wellbeing

Nutritionist & Dietician

When did breakfast foods become part of our daily routine, and what you should really eat?

If you’re reading this over breakfast, pause a moment to consider your choice.

Are you eating what the Western world considers a “typical” morning meal?

Bacon and eggs. Cereal. Porridge. Pancakes. These dishes are often considered appropriate in the morning, but unusual at any other time.

So how did this happen? Do “breakfast foods” serve a unique purpose, or is the distinction arbitrary?

While people have been breaking their fast as long as there have been people, the timing of that first meal has differed throughout history.

The ancient Romans were big proponents of breakfast, enjoying bread, cheese and some watered-down wine at the crack of dawn.

So were ancient Egyptians, who typically ate just breakfast and dinner. It was also common for labourers to start their day with beer.

But in Europe’s Middle Ages, the first meal often wasn’t until mid to late morning. The Catholic Church — namely theologian Thomas Aquinas — considered eating too early a form of gluttony.

It was capitalism that brought consistency.

The Industrial Revolution, from 1750 to 1860, put more people in offices and factories.

Because they had fewer chances to eat during the work day, a morning meal was essential.

Many who found themselves sitting for most of the day also turned to a lighter breakfast to avoid indigestion.

Still, the kind of food people ate was dictated by convenience: what was easiest, cheapest and available.

How cereal became a breakfast staple

While the Industrial Revolution chugged along in Britain, another revolution was underway in the US.

A physician, John Harvey Kellogg, was searching for a pre-prepared, nutritious meal for patients at the sanatorium he ran in Battle Creek, Michigan.

Dr Kellogg created the now-famous Corn Flakes, intending the bland food to ease digestion … and curb masturbation.

He believed masturbation led to a number of health issues, including memory loss, impaired vision, heart disease, epilepsy and insanity.

It was his brother, WK Kellogg, who went on to mass produce and market Corn Flakes, without any mention of his sibling’s anti-masturbation campaign. He also added sugar.

Thanks to its pre-packaged convenience, cereal had a meteoric rise in the US, going from a digestive aid to a staple morning meal.

Cereal’s rising popularity in the first half of the 20th century helped establish the idea that “breakfast is the most important meal of the day”.

But the slogan, thought to have evolved from a 1940s cereal campaign, was in print decades before, including in an 1880 volume of Good Housekeeping.

So is breakfast really the most important meal of the day?

Research tells a different story.

A 2016 study, led by the Bath Breakfast Project, investigated what we call “breakfast” and what we define as “important”.

The authors say breakfast is “undoubtedly” important if you wake up hungry, but it’s impossible to pin long-term health outcomes on a single meal.

There are still plenty of studies looking into breakfast’s effects on our health. Some suggest skipping the morning meal might lead to weight gain. Others fail to find a connection.

Some studies suggest breakfast contributes to improved cardiometabolic health. Others call for more, and better, research.

The conclusion from the Bath Breakfast Project?

“Breakfast may or may not be the most important meal of the day, but it is certainly an important meal to investigate further.”

Bacon, eggs and a side of PR

The cereal campaign is only one side of the marketing blitz behind the Western world’s breakfast beliefs.

One of the most successful public relations campaigns in modern history came from the mind of one man: Edward Bernays.

In the 1920s, with more people opting for lighter, easier-to-digest breakfasts (perhaps a bowl of cereal), bacon sales fell.

Bernays, sometimes called the father of PR, was brought in to turn things around.

In his book, Bernays wrote that bacon sales dropped “because people had slimmed down their breakfast to a piece of toast, orange juice and a cup of coffee”.

So, he asked, could a heartier breakfast be healthier?

Bernays sent the question to 5,000 doctors and 4,500 responded in agreement: Americans should eat a protein-rich breakfast of bacon and eggs.

He shared the results with newspapers and magazines, and sales of bacon went up.

In reality, the World Health Organization considers there’s enough evidence to say processed meats are carcinogenic to humans, much like smoking, which Bernays also advocated for.

The Cancer Council recommends cutting processed meats out of your diet altogether, or keeping them to a minimum.

What should we eat for breakfast?

It’s no secret that what we eat is shaped by marketing. While that influence started in print, recent studies focus on how social media affects our food choices.

But putting marketing aside, what should we have for breakfast?

According to dietitian Jemma O’Hanlon, the answer is simple: a balance of complex carbohydrates, protein and unsaturated fats.

“An example would be some natural muesli with some Greek yoghurt, some fresh berries and some toasted nuts,” she says.

“You’ve got whole grains from your muesli, you’ve got protein from your yoghurt, you’ve got healthy fats with your toasted nuts and you’ve got fresh berries, which is a source of fruit.”

But there are plenty of variations on a healthy breakfast — especially when you step away from the westernised morning meal.

In Japan, it’s common to have a combination of rice, eggs and veggies.

In North Africa and the Middle East, shakshuka — a dish of poached eggs in a tomato mixture, often with a side of bread — is popular

And those meals, while some might not consider them “breakfast foods”, tick all the right boxes. They contain complex carbs, protein and unsaturated fats.

“I think it is helpful to have that as a foundation to guide us,” Ms O’Hanlon says.

“But we don’t have to get those macronutrients absolutely right, every single day … It’s about finding what works for you.”

As for the debate on whether or not to skip your morning meal, Ms O’Hanlon says you should eat if you’re hungry.

“Our brains are very smart,” she says.

“We know how many calories we’re consuming. We know if we’re getting the right nutrients to fill us up, and give our bodies what we need.

“If we don’t get that food in, we’ll be craving it later in the day. So having a healthy breakfast really does set us up for success.”