Breakfast, as they say, is the most important meal of the day. But not all breakfasts are created equal. It’s fairly clear that eating a bacon sandwich or a fry up every morning isn’t the best way to start the day. But eating a sugary breakfast is just as unhealthy, but in a different way.
Seamingly ‘healthy’ breakfasts a full of sugar
And we don’t just mean knowingly eating a sugary breakfast of pancakes covered in syrup or frosted cereals. Many of the breakfasts we think are healthy might not be as virtuous as we first thought they were.
Many seemingly ‘healthy’ cereals sold to us as filling, balanced options are in fact packed with sugar. The same goes for on the go cereal bars, granola topped yoghurts and porridge pots.
So what should we be eating for breakfast if we want to avoid sugar? What impact does it have on our energy levels, health and skin if we start the day with a bowl full of sugar?
Here’s our lowdown on sugar, breakfast and getting the best energy packed start to the day.
What are blood sugar levels?
We hear the term “blood sugar levels” mentioned a lot. But what exactly are they? Your blood sugar level is a measure of the amount, or concentration of a sugar called glucose in your blood at any given time.
The level of glucose in the blood tends to be at its lowest in the morning, after we’ve been fasting. It then peaks after eating, especially so after eating a meal that contains sugar or carbohydrate.
Carbohydrates break down into simple sugars
Carbohydrates are complex molecules that the body breaks down into simple sugars. They’re not necessarily bad - we need some sugar, particularly glucose, which is the brain’s preferred source of energy.
When we’re fasted, say in the morning, the brain is still using 60% of the body’s glucose. Eating carbohydrate foods gives us the energy we need to power our brains, muscles and all other bodily functions.
Why does it help to keep blood sugar levels stable?
If we eat a lot of carbohydrates, then our blood sugar levels will surge. This is especially the case if we eat processed carbohydrates such as white bread or pasta. These kinds of food have already had their complex carbohydrates partially broken down, so when we eat them, the body doesn’t have to do much to quickly turn them into sugar.
Opting for wholewheat, or brown unprocessed bread and pasta instead means that the body has to work harder and longer to break them down.
When carbohydrates are broken down quickly, we get a surge in energy, quickly followed by a slump. On the other hand, more complex carbs take longer to break down and therefore their energy is released more slowly and is more sustained.
Therefore, eating to keep the blood sugar levels stable is key to being energised throughout the day. That way, we’re more likely to be able to concentrate on our work, have enough left in the tank to work out after work and get through the afternoon without reaching for a chocolate bar for energy.
Eating to maintain blood sugar levels
So how do we eat properly to help keep our blood sugar levels stable? Here’s a few top tips:
- Swap white carbs for brown carbs
- Avoid eating sugary foods such as chocolate, cakes, biscuits and pastries
- Eat more soluble fibre such as oats, nuts and beans which help to slow down how quickly carbohydrates are broken down into sugars and absorbed into the blood
- Stay hydrated - being dehydrated encourages the liver to release more sugar into the blood
- Make vegetables, and to a lesser extent, fruit (whilst full of vitamins and minerals, fruit also contains a sugar called fructose) the main part of each meal
(If you’re diabetic or suffer with hypo- or hyperglycemia, then make sure you seek the advice of your GP or specialist consultant when it comes to the right diet for you.)
Why not to start the day with a sugary breakfast
A huge part of maintaining blood sugar levels is starting the day right with a healthy, low sugar breakfast. Because slow release, complex carbohydrates such as those in wholemeal toast get broken down into sugars more slowly than refined, processed ones such as those in frosted flakes, they keep blood sugar levels more consistent.
Eating sugary frosted flakes will send blood sugar levels surging and just a couple of hours later, they will crash again. This will mean that you’ll be hungry and you'll be craving more sugar to get back to the dizzying heights of blood sugar that you had before.
You’ll then grab the nearest sugary cereal bar, biscuit or pastry and you’re sucked into a vicious cycle of sugar fuelled overeating.
We’re not saying to never eat sugar. After all, sweet treats are nice. And as we mentioned above, we need it, preferably from slow release wholewheat carbs. Without sugar, we’d feel weak, lethargic and foggy brained, unable to function or concentrate. We’re saying to eat treats in moderation, and avoid them at breakfast, at least during the working week.
Low sugar breakfast ideas
So, what constitutes a low sugar breakfast? Here’s some ideas, most of which are high in protein, which like carbs, is a macronutrient that also provides slow release energy. In fact, protein is the most filling macronutrient, the third and final macronutrient is fat.
Here are quick ideas for when time is short, and others are more indulgent, slow paced breakfast ideas that are ideal for the weekend.
- Porridge made with oats, semi skimmed or plant milk with a pinch of cinnamon
- Shop bought muesli with no added sugar (but be mindful of brands that contain more dried fruit than nuts, seeds and grains)
- Homemade granola bars such as these made with jumbo oats
- Overnight chia seed pot
- Peanut butter on wholemeal toast
- Baked beans on wholemeal toast
- Scrambled or poached eggs on wholemeal toast
- Scrambled tofu on wholemeal toast
- Avocado on wholemeal toast
- Low fat or meat free sausages, grilled tomatoes and mushrooms
- Boiled eggs, spinach and asparagus dippers
- Avocado and banana smoothie
How sugar affects the skin
Excess sugar doesn’t just mess with our energy levels and potentially lead to type 2 diabetes and piling on the pounds. It’s also an inflammatory food, which means that eating lots of it can lead to a build up of inflammation in the body.
This is because, when we eat sugar, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin, that helps the body deal with the excess sugar in the blood. The more sugar, the more insulin and subsequently, the more inflammation as insulin causes inflammation in high doses.
Since chronic inflammation can lead to a worsening of skin conditions such as acne, if you have problem skin, cutting down on sugary foods could help to improve your skin. And what better way to start than with breakfast?!