What Is The Perfect Breakfast?
Breakfast has been a source of debate for decades.
To some, it’s the most important meal of the day. To others (my IF brethren), it’s no different than any other meal and can be skipped.
Funny, how such polar opposite views exist about a meal that we’ve been eating for ages. Funnier, that the views aren’t opposites at all. Not once you define breakfast correctly.
Breakfast = the meal you break your fast with.
Not necessarily the meal you have as soon as you get up.
Once you start seeing breakfast as ‘the first meal of my day’, irrespective of the time you eat it, you can lay the debate to rest and focus on nutrition.
And yes, there are very clear, simple rules for what makes the perfect first meal of the day. Let’s dive in!
The job of breakfast:
The first meal of your day needs to serve 3 primary purposes.
Your breakfast needs to be the fuel that picks you up and keeps you going through the day
A good breakfast gets you started well on all your macros (protein, carbs, and fats) and micros (calcium, magnesium, vitamins, and minerals).
Low Insulin Spike:
The last thing you want is a big insulin spike first thing in the morning. Some simple carbs are fine (maybe even good to get you going), but you definitely should not be starting the day with a sugar-bomb (yup, I’m looking at those cookies and croissants.). A slow and steady insulin spike is the secret to a non-lethargic start to your day.
That’s it. That’s all a great breakfast needs to do. But how?
Now that we know what purpose it needs to serve, we can start constructing the macro and micro nutritional composition of the perfect breakfast.
Note: For the purpose of this article, I’ll be making 3 assumptions.
You’re not on IF.
You’re a healthy adult Indian male/female. And hence your recommended daily calorie intake is ~1500–1800 calories. And within that, the recommended protein intake is 55–60gm a day.
Like most people, you get up and have either milky tea or coffee. I’m assuming that drink to be 100 calories.
Sustained Energy = Complex Carbs
It’s not a coincidence that most breakfast staples across the world (from cereals to paranthas to idlis to bread butter) are high on carbs. If the job of your first meal is to give you the energy to get through the day, a base of carbs is an absolute necessity. Energy bars are also a good source of energy.
Ideally, these carbs should be complex carbs. And ideally, about 40–50% of the calories in your breakfast, should come from them.
Complex carbs are carbs with a complex food matrix. That means that the food has complex cell structures and the body needs to do more work to break them down.
More digestive work = slower blood absorption = prolonged energy release & low GI. Simple!
When it comes to macros (protein, carbs, and fat), two simple thumb rules can be a great guide for your food choices
Of your total calorie intake, try and get 40%:40%:20% calories from Carb:Fat: Protein.
Keep increasing the proportion of protein and decreasing the proportion of carbs in your meals as you progress through the day.
Also, in a 1500–1800 calorie day, about 30% of calories should come from your first meal. That’s about 450–500 calories, of which 100 are already gone in your morning caffeinated beverage. That leaves ~350 calories for us to play with.
With these rules as our guiding light, let’s construct the right macro profile of our perfect breakfast.
Usually, our snacks are protein deficient (chips, cookies, fried stuff) and our dinners are protein-rich (meats, paneer, lentils, legumes).
If you follow rule 2 above and include a good protein source like protein bars, I’d say you get ~40% of your day’s protein from dinner (~20–25gm protein. Which is equal to one chicken breast or 150gm paneer). Let say another 10% comes from your snack.
That leaves about 50% (~30gm) to be fulfilled by breakfast and lunch. A 40:60 split, in that order being best.
So the perfect breakfast needs about 12–14gm of protein. And since 1gm protein = 4cal, that’s about 50–60 calories gone.
To absorb all the nutrition you’re ingesting, you need fats. Good fats, those that come from natural sources like nuts and seeds. Higher the proportion of unsaturated fats within them, the better.
Now, out of our 350 cal quota, 50% (175cal) is taken by complex carbs and 55 cal by proteins. That leaves 120 calories for fat. And since 1gm of fat has 9cal, that’s about 12–14gms of good fats we’re taking here.
A word for Sugar
Not all carbs are created equal. And sugar gets an exceptionally bad name (for good reason given its ubiquity in the modern world).
But remember, sugar in and of itself isn’t bad. Sugar in large doses, which in turn makes you crave even more sugar, is bad. So, the amount of added sugar must be calculated.
So what’s the right dose of sugar? WHO guidelines say it’s 50gm a day. But they recently released an advisory saying that cutting it down to 25gm, has shown a significant decrease in diabetes.
And since you’ve read this far, I assume you’re more concerned about your sugar than the average joe, so let’s fix our target at 20gm a day (just count the amount of sugar you have in a day, and you’ll be surprised how tough a target this is).
Now, while we want to front-load our carbs, we also don’t want to start our day with a sugar-induced insulin spike. So, if we try and remove all sugar from dinner, then the 2 morning meals and the evening snack need to shoulder this sugar intake equally. That’s about 6–8gm of sugar in your breakfast.
Low Insulin Spike = High Fibre
Controlling the insulin spike early morning is perhaps the most under-rated hack to productivity there is. Construct a breakfast where resting insulin rises gradually as the day progresses, and you have yourself a winner.
More than half the job is already done when you chose complex carbs. Choosing foods that are high on fiber (nuts & seeds again) does the rest.
Fiber slows down digestion. More importantly, it slows down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. Which means lower insulin shock. #win
The perfect breakfast
To recap, here’s what it looks like.
12–14gm protein + 35gm Complex Carbs + 12–14gm Good Fats + 5Gm Fibre = ~350 calories (plus your cappucino)
Keep the carbs complex. Keep sugar under 8gm. Keep the protein sources varied. And keep the fats coming from natural sources.