[From New Vegetarian and Natural Health, Autumn 2010 issue]
By Roger French
Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper goes the current orthodox advice, advising us that breakfast should be the main meal of the day and the evening meal should be a light one.
The opposite school of thought – which includes the Natural Health view – is that breakfast can be a light meal and lunch and dinner both main meals. Such conflicting advice can be very confusing for the person looking for guidance.
The two approaches do have one aspect in common. It is that three main meals a day is too much, and two is all we need. It is only the positioning of the meals that is contested.
ARGUMENTS FOR A ‘HEARTY’ BREAKFAST
The major argument for a heavy breakfast has arisen from research which found that a meal eaten at breakfast time was potentially less likely to contribute to obesity than the same meal consumed in the evening. This conclusion was drawn from the discovery that the basal metabolic rate is higher in the morning than in the evening, and therefore more of the calories of that meal are likely to be burned up if it is consumed before the day's activities commence. [Basal metabolic rate (BMR) is the minimum amount of energy required to maintain vital functions in a person when resting completely, physically and mentally.]
Conversely, the calories from a main meal in the evening are not needed immediately and have all night while we sleep to be converted to fat.
There are weaknesses in this argument. Firstly, a heavy meal – in this case, breakfast – takes hours to digest and takes time to start releasing its energy. Secondly, digestion itself consumes a great deal of the body's available energy, possibly up to half, so we can feel drowsy and there is less energy, not more, available for the morning’s activities that follow breakfast.
In any case, it must surely be the total amount of energy burned up in any one day compared to the total we consume in that day that determines whether there is a surplus to convert to fat.
And what about the majority of the population who aren't obese? It is ridiculous to regulate eating habits on the basis of preventing a problem many people don't have.
Nature's purpose in giving us a higher metabolic rate in the cool of early morning is to generate extra heat to compensate for the lower temperatures until the day warms up. It is not meant to trigger eating.
Another argument for a big breakfast quotes studies which found that children who skip breakfast tend to have poor concentration and lethargy and are slower learners with overall poorer performance.
So many children (and adults) suffer from hypoglycaemia that these findings are not surprising. Their low blood sugar creates an abnormal need for meals regularly throughout the day. Correct the hypoglycaemia and the children could be expected to perform well without a heavy breakfast. The British medical journal, The Lancet (October 1987) reported that normal children were unaffected or performed better without breakfast.
Although breakfast is fashionable with orthodox nutritionists, the traditional ‘hearty’ breakfast of bacon and eggs, sausages and eggs, etc., has been officially pronounced 'dead'. Its only connection with 'hearty' is that it contributes to heart disease.
Now in fashion is a somewhat lighter start to the day: cereal and milk, toast and fruit juice. Although a considerable improvement on bacon and eggs, starchy grains are still heavy foods, much too heavy for awakening a sleepy digestive tract. What we do need is revealed by taking notice of our body's daily metabolic cycle.
THE DAILY METABOLIC CYCLE
Extensive research in the 1940s by the Swedish scientist, Are Waerland, and the American College of Health Science has charted a regular daily rhythm in the body, called the ‘circadian’ rhythm. Our ability to use food effectively is closely related to the phases of this daily cycle.
The three phases of metabolism are:
Noon to 8pm: the best time for eating and digestion;
8pm to 4am: assimilation and utilisation of nutrients;
4am to noon: elimination of waste products and food residues. (These times are very approximate.)
Although digestion, assimilation and elimination may proceed at any time of the day, each is more intense during its particular part of the cycle.
The signs of these cycles are readily visible. On waking in the morning we often have bad breath and coated tongue, indicating that increased elimination is also occurring via the lungs and mouth. During the morning there is no true appetite; once the habit of having a big breakfast is broken, most people realise this. Around midday, true appetite is heralded by a delightful sensation in the stomach that is now ready and willing to receive food.
Have you ever woken up feeling heavy and uncomfortable in the stomach after eating late at night? The digestive system wants to shut down during sleep, but when it is forced to press on, the cycles are thrown into chaos and sleep is disrupted.
The crux of the problem with a big breakfast is that it forces the body to divert energy to digestion and away from the elimination process, frustrating the body’s eliminative effort and leading to retention and accumulation of waste-products or ‘toxaemia’ – medically called 'metabolic imbalance'.
Digestion is also forced to compete with the morning's activities for available energy, so it too can be compromised.
The best time for laborious work, whether physical or mental, is during the morning on an essentially empty stomach; the best time for sleep is during the night, also on an empty stomach.
HOW LIGHT IS FRUIT?
The word, ‘breakfast’, is derived from 'break the fast' with the first meal of the day after the over-night fast. Quite apart from the need to avoid interfering with the elimination cycle, the first meal after a fast is better to be as light as possible to gradually re-awaken a sleepy digestive system.
Natural Health practitioners have long observed that the stomach tends to ‘wake up’ about two to three hours after the mind. By delaying breakfast for about this time or until after physical activity, digestion is further facilitated.
Once the big breakfast habit is broken, which can take a month or two, most people experience no true appetite until mid-morning or later. When we listen to our bodies, the answers are all there.
The lightest foods on Earth are fresh fruits or their juices. This is because their major component is water (for example, 75% in bananas, 93% in watermelon) and their only other major ingredient is easily-digested natural sugar, which is well balanced by minerals, vitamins, enzymes and fibre.
Fruit sugars need very little energy for digestion, with glucose requiring none. Fruits are naturally 'cleansing' foods and are the only foods suitable for consumption during the elimination cycle. Because the nutrients are absorbed relatively rapidly, energy is available very quickly – and from glucose (predominant in grapes), in a matter of minutes.
Because fruit is so ‘light’ to digest and tends to burn ‘clean’ in the body, it does not significantly interfere with the eliminative phase of metabolism. Consequently, having a light fruit breakfast and main meals at lunch and dinner occupies the body with full-scale digestion and assimilation for only about 9 hours a day, leaving 15 hours for the elimination of waste products. In contrast, eating three main meals a day leaves only around 10 hours for elimination.
The benefits of a fruit breakfast apply equally to sedentary and manual workers – except that the manual worker by mid-morning would probably need more fruit or perhaps a snack of a light grain food like crispbread. Starchy foods like bread (or toast), if they are desired, would be more acceptable than for the sedentary person.
For a person who has adjusted to it, a light breakfast kicks off a light, vitality-filled day; a heavy breakfast makes for a heavy day. Many Australians eat not only heavy breakfasts, but heavy lunches and heavy dinners as well. Far more time is spent eating than eliminating. It's no mystery as to why obesity is endemic and toxaemia is the norm in Australia.
Eating a good quantity of fruit in a day is not necessarily fattening – the high water content takes care of that. It's the foods eaten in addition to fruit which are fattening. Successful and relatively easy weight loss is largely dependent on the efficiency of the elimination cycle.
To prevent hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), the guide is to avoid eating an excessive amount of fruit in any one meal – and certainly to avoid doing this day after day, month after month, year after year. In the case where hypoglycaemia is already established, a generous serve of fruit could trigger an episode of low blood sugar.
CONVERTING TO A FRUIT BREAKFAST
Breaking a life-long habit of heavy or heavy-ish breakfasts needs to be done gradually over a number of weeks or months. Making sudden changes is not good for the body because it becomes programmed to whatever the habit is and expects that event to happen as usual.
The easiest way to switch the digestive system over to a light fruit breakfast after a lifetime of cereal or eggs on toast, etc, is this. Have a small quantity of fruit first, then half to one hour later have the usual cereal or whatever. Gradually increase the quantity of fruit and reduce the cereal, maintaining the interval between the two so as to allow the fruit to partly or wholly depart the stomach before the second ‘course’. Eventually the meal will be all fruit and no cereal.
The process might take four weeks or it might take two months. How full you feel after the two ‘courses’ will tell you whether you are progressing too rapidly.
EAT ONLY WHEN HUNGRY
One of Nature's fundamental guidelines is: Eat only when hungry; don't eat when not hungry. Again, our bodies know what is best for them and have a way of conveying the message to our brains. With regard to breakfast time, if there is no appetite at that time, we are best to have just a glass of water, and not eat until hunger arrives, which is often mid-morning. When our bodies need food, they will tell us in no uncertain terms.
Most people doing sedentary work are not genuinely hungry at breakfast time, unless the previous evening's meal was very light. We often hear of children not having breakfast; if they had hunger, they would see to it that they do have breakfast.
After a light breakfast, we will normally relish a square meal for lunch and again at dinner, and this is as it should be. We will be digesting these two meals at the time when the digestive system is at its peak.
For proper sleep it is necessary to finish the evening meal at least three hours before retiring to bed so that the stomach will be empty, or close to it, when sleep begins. If a bed-time snack is irresistible, make it fruit.
If, between the evening meal and lunch the next day, we eat only fruit (or nothing at all), we are extending the night's fast to around 14 – 16 hours, a long rest which is a marvellous start for maintaining a strong digestive system.
SOME HARD EVIDENCE
Further evidence for the potential benefits of this kind of meal pattern has been provided by Professor Ray Kearney of the Department of Infectious Diseases of Sydney University. His research has found that eating two meals a day adjacent to each other, instead of three meals spread through the day, significantly reduces the incidence of skin cancers and other forms of cancer. Mice allowed to eat for six hours and fasted for 18 hours each day showed a ‘phenomenal’ reduction of 93% in the number of skin cancers compared to mice allowed access to food 24 hours a day.
The fasting mice also maintained their youthful weight while the grazers put on weight and appeared older and slower.
The longest living peoples the world has seen, all have in common the fact that they don't over-eat – their calorie intake is just above subsistence level, meaning that they consume enough food but no more. The contemporary example is the people of the Okinawa Islands to the south of Japan. Their calorie intake is 30% less than that of Australians and their longevity and freedom from cancer and other diseases is outstanding. This confirms that any eating pattern that makes it easier to not overeat is a huge advantage.
If you want your body's unfettered opinion of a heavy breakfast, try this. Get used to a fruit breakfast for a while and then try a heavy breakfast soon after rising. You will most likely feel as heavy as lead all morning and have no interest in lunch.
Many people have discovered that once they break the ‘breakfast like a king’ habit, they are better off. Hundreds of people have commented to the Natural Health Society, "Natural Health advice is right. Now that I am used to a fruit breakfast, I have more energy in the morning and my head is clearer."
A fruit-only breakfast is not a firm recommendation for everyone, it is for individuals to try if they wish. If, by any chance, a person adjusts their eating pattern in accordance with these guidelines and then experiences health problems, this would suggest that some individual factor is involved and a consultation with an appropriate practitioner may be a wise move.
People who find it inconvenient to adhere to a balanced diet of natural, unprocessed foods may perhaps find it relatively easy to adhere to having fruit only or fruit juices only before noon. This alone could be expected to yield considerable benefits. Finally, the same general rule applies as with all Natural Health guidelines – no fanaticism. It’s not what we do 5% of the time that determines our health; it’s what we do 95% of the time that counts.
FURTHER READING Fit for Life by Harvey and Marilyn Diamond