How many times have you been told breakfast is the most important meal of the day? Too many to count? That all important boost of energy (and large coffee) sets us off for the day, but many of us turn to a quick, easy, sugary start, which most often sets off a sugar-seeking cycle for the rest of the day. meaning we're constantly on the hunt for the next source of sugar - our energy levels before the end of the morning, so we look for another boost - perhaps the second coffee, the elevenses donut or maybe a piece of fruit. But then the stomach starts rumbling before lunch time, right?
Of course, we all know that too much sugar is not so good for our health, but just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down in the most delightful way.
So many of us turn to a sugary hit to start the day in a delicious way, but how many of us are overestimating the benefits of sugar to give us energy at the beginning of the day? Or maybe underestimating the sugar content of those go-to breakfast options? Actually, a breakfast based only on sugar and carbs may have the opposite effect that we hope, leaving us with low energy during the morning and increasing our feeling of hunger quicker than a more balanced breakfast.
You’ve seen the memes about tucking into our lunch the moment we arrive at our desks, we laugh about it. But if your lunch is becoming your second breakfast, perhaps it’s because you’re first wasn’t satiating enough, a nutritious source of energy, a little too sugary to keep you going. Anyone with diabetes is likely mindful of their sugar intake from the beginning of each, but the rest of us know very little about the healthy blood glucose levels. So we’re going to shed a little light for you, as diabetes is a common chronic illness in the UK, and the impact of too much sugar on our health and ability to think is relevant for everyone.
Are carbs and sugar the same?
We’re sure you know already, but just be sure let’s clarify quickly. Sugar is not just that spoon of little white sweet grains that we put in our coffee. It is naturally occurring in many foods we normally eat, like fruits and milk, and ‘added sugars’ are often present in processed foods, such as biscuits, desserts and sauces. So even if we’re sweet-enough-without-sugar in our coffee, we might still be consuming more than we realise.
Carbohydrates are basically sugar molecules, one of the main nutrients in our food together with proteins and fats. Meaning cutting out carbs (even before Marbs) isn’t all that healthy to do, without direct medical advice. But understanding how to balance our diet and get the nutrients that help us most, including those carbs might be really rather helpful.
Sugars are the most simple form of carbs, and they can be processed by our body very quickly. This gives us that immediate peak of energy, but it drops very shortly. So if we’re relying on sugars only, our blood glucose levels will go up and down very quickly, making us feel hungry more often and unable to maintain concentration for long.
But sugars are also hidden in most complex carbs called starches, which are made up of multiple sugars. Starches include pasta, bread, cereals, potatoes, peas and corn. We don’t really think about sugar when we eat pasta or potatoes, do we? But our body is able to process those foods in simpler sugars. So if we eat a loaf of bread we are going to have the equivalent of some teaspoons of sugars in our blood after some time. However, complex carbs are better to regulate our blood glucose over a day. Given the time our body needs to process those, energy is released in a slower time than simple sugars. This means that instead of having high peaks and quick lows, we have a more regulated balance.
Even those starches alone are not enough to keep our blood sugar levels well balanced. Whole grains are often recommended because they are rich in fibre. Fibres are also complex carbohydrates, but our body cannot break down most of them, meaning that they don’t get transformed into simple sugars. Eating carbs rich in fibre really helps in slowing down the release of sugar in our blood, thus increasing our feeling of satiety and regulating our energy levels for several hours. A fibre-rich diet also supports our digestive health. We can find fibres in many plant-based foods, such as vegetables, nuts, seeds, and whole grains.
Building a balanced breakfast habit
First of all, never skip breakfast. Too low levels of blood sugar after a night of fasting can lead to dizziness, increased heartbeat and irritability. If you really struggle with breakfast, try to have something ready to eat in the morning from the night before or something packed you can easily eat on your commute.
Add fibres: swap white bread for whole grain, try oatmeal, buckwheat, high-fibre cereals, fruits and vegetables.
Add proteins: they’re also great in slowing down the release of sugars in our blood, so they’re always good to go together with some carbs-rich food. Try cheese, eggs, nuts or even fish like salmon to enrich your breakfast.
Add healthy fats: that’s not an oxymoron, unsaturated fats like Omega-3 fatty acids are well known for their anti-inflammatory properties, as well as helping us in managing our blood sugar and reducing our feeling of appetite. Try adding avocado, nuts, seeds and nut butter to your breakfast to complete it.
Extra tips to reduce sugar in our routine
Avoid drinks such as fruit juices with added sugar or bottled teas for breakfast. Use home-made fruit smoothies instead, or infused teas.
If you can’t drink your coffee black, use natural sweeteners instead of sugar, like stevia or erythritol.
Avoid sweetened yoghurt and substitute it with plain yoghurt with fresh fruit instead.
Swap Nutella for natural nut butters on your toasts.
Prepare your own meal with fresh, whole ingredients instead of buying processed food at the supermarket.
A spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down: the medicine here being nutritional wisdom, but of course, take it as it comes to you. We could all take a bit more care over what we eat and where our nutrients come from, but don’t forget to enjoy it too! That sweet treat mid-afternoon, the indulgent dessert, the cake for your colleagues birthday won’t ruin your body or your appearance - just perhaps take this to help you be a bit more mindful about WHEN you’re sugaring up.