Wednesday, April 23, 2003

Breakfast is one meal that matters

Without fuel in the morning, bodies and brains simply don't work as well

By Jason Hidalgo
The Reno Gazette-Journal

It's 10 a.m. on a Thursday, and Andy Gagnon and Elisa Fields of Reno, Nev., are enjoying something that millions of Americans aren't having these days - breakfast.

Gagnon says he usually starts out with something light during weekdays, but not today. He and Fields are eating a nice, leisurely breakfast before they catch a flight to Whistler, British Columbia, to enjoy some late-season skiing. For Gagnon, that means getting a plate of tamale and eggs at Peg's Glorified Ham & Eggs.

"Usually, I have a yogurt; sometimes a protein bar," says Gagnon. "But that doesn't taste as good as this."

Peg's is bustling this morning. But the eggs, hash browns, steaks and fruit that dot several tables and fill the air with that familiar breakfast scent mask a growing trend outside its busy walls: skipping breakfast.

"It's a big problem," says dietitian Gail Bradley. "Most people don't have enough time (for breakfast) - or make the time."

Americans eat too much. At least that's what the latest studies on rising obesity rates in the United States show. Research that appeared recently in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that in 2001, 20.9 percent of Americans - more than 44 million - were obese.

But while most Americans' affinity for food appears to be increasing more and more, people are now having less and less of one gastronomic staple. Once a part of starting one's day that people savored, breakfast in today's fast-paced society has become a necessary evil that many either rush through or skip altogether.

About 20 percent of breakfasts in 2002 were either taken on the go or skipped outright, according to a report from the NPD Group Inc., an international marketing company based in Port Washington, N.Y. Americans, on average, also skipped 50 breakfast meals last year, nearing the high mark set in 1998 of 51 breakfast meals skipped, according to NPD.

In 1999, people ages 18 to 34 skipped the most breakfast meals, averaging 87 meals skipped. Coming in second were people 13 to 17 and 35 to 49, skipping an average of 63 breakfast meals that year.

Children aren't immune, either. More than 50 percent of children reported skipping breakfast at some time during the week, according to the American Dietetic Association.

"I always look at breakfast as truly breaking the overnight fast," says registered dietitian Kerry Seymour, owner of Nutrition Resources in Reno. "I always ask my clients who are breakfast skippers what time they had dinner the night before. If you have dinner at 6 p.m. and you're not eating until noon the next day, then, boy, that's a big chunk of time for your body not to have food."

The human body has an amazing design when it comes to processing the food you give it to maintain itself, Seymour says. Even in the absence of enough fuel from food, the body can tap into tissue such as muscle to fuel itself. Just because your body can do that, though, doesn't mean it's a good thing to do.

Some people, for example, might get shaky or have difficulty concentrating when their blood-sugar levels drop due to insufficient sustenance, Seymour says. That can affect the performance of daily tasks, including work. Research also shows that students do better academically when they've had breakfast, Seymour adds.

"If it isn't getting enough fuel, the brain isn't going to be as aware or as effective as it should be," Seymour says.

Don't rely on just coffee to give you that morning boost, either. Coffee is a "false fuel" - the caffeine gives you a lift and makes you feel alert but it doesn't give your body and brain real fuel to work with, Seymour says.

Research shows that people who skip breakfast are likelier to become binge eaters, Seymour says. Besides binge eating, waiting too long between meals also can lead to weight gain because it can have the slight effect of lowering your metabolism, Seymour adds.

But no matter how busy people are, there's always a way to squeeze breakfast into your schedule, Bradley says. The key is to keep things simple.

Prepackaged oatmeal, for example, only takes two minutes to prepare; just plop it in the microwave, Bradley says. You also can whip up a smoothie with milk or soy milk and frozen fruit. Planning the night before can make breakfast a manageable experience, Bradley says.

The important thing is to just get some fuel in there to start your day, Seymour says.

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