During my sophomore year of college, I found myself in a small predicament that has improved my daily life from that point on.
I got busy and skipped grocery day and woke up on Monday morning to find that I had no “breakfast” food to my name – and, because I have a strict allegiance to eating breakfast, out of dire necessity, I grabbed the lone Tupperware in my fridge, which happened to be leftover homemade chili.
Rich, meaty, vegetable-loaded, extra-spicy chili at 6:30 a.m.
And I had the best day ever. Compared with my usual breakfast of cereal or pancakes, I had more energy on my run, I was more alert in my classes, and, best of all, I wasn’t dashing to the nearest campus café two hours later to feed my grumbling stomach. In fact, five hours after I finished the chili, I was still full.
Coincidence? Perhaps…but the difference in how I felt throughout the day was so astounding that I started to question whether the foods with which we are accustomed to starting our day are truly stetting us up to function optimally. So I did some research, and it turned out there might be more to The Chili Effect than just optimism.
First of all, who deemed certain foods “breakfast foods,” anyway? Why do we eat pancakes, potatoes, toast and cereal in the mornings but not in the evenings? Why is it that if you told someone you had chicken and green beans for breakfast, they’d call you crazy? I did a little research and found two major reasons breakfast has evolved into what we know it as:
Health concerns. Here’s a quick history lesson: before the Industrial revolution, most people ate dinner leftovers for breakfast. These hearty meals fueled them for a full day of manual labor on the farm. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, people moved to cities and began to work in factories where they stood in one place all day. The problem was, they kept their same habits – eating sometimes the equivalent of 2 meals at breakfast – and widespread indigestion resulted. Doctors remedied the problem by advising lighter, whole grain-based breakfasts, hence the rise of Kellogg and other cereal companies.
Efficiency. You and I are no strangers to this one. We don’t want to get up 20 minutes earlier to cook a balanced meal, we want something that is on-the-go friendly and involves little to no preparation. I eat my granola in a disposable cup as I walk to class. Companies capitalized big-time here, too. Nowadays, breakfast companies market almost exclusively for convenience. The trade-off is that two hours later, you’re sitting at your desk unable to focus because your stomach is talking to you.
So, “breakfast foods” are, quite literally, a social construct. Our inherent tastes don’t shape what we eat for breakfast; the dogma created around breakfast food has shaped our tastes. The category of breakfast foods originated from evolving health concerns and was solidified by the onset of the technological age and rising obsession with efficiency. However, breakfast has stopped evolving in tune with health research. We now know that sugary, high-glycemic foods like cereal result in an unpleasant “crash” a few hours later. And what is true daily efficiency, anyway? Is it grabbing a granola bar as you run out the door, or does it mean being focused, energetic, and satiated for the duration of your workday?
I’m going to go against the grain here (pun slightly intended) and assert that eating protein – and a lot of it – in the morning is the best thing you can do for yourself in terms of both health and efficiency. Eating 20-30g of protein in the morning will help you stay fuller longer, and thus be more energetic, focused, and make healthier choices throughout the day. The National Sports Performance Association cited a study comparing three groups of breakfast eaters: those who ate 35g, 12g, and less than 12g of protein for breakfast. Caloric intake was the same through dinner, but after dinner, all participants could eat whatever they wanted. The group who ate 35g protein for breakfast reportedly ate 200 calories less after dinner than those in the low-protein breakfast groups, and they chose post-dinner snacks that were lower in sugar and fat.
Whether you are trying to gain muscle mass, lose weight, be more productive during the day, or sleep better at night – this habit change may be the key to a fuller daily life. While “breakfast foods” like scrambles and burritos are far better than cereal, I encourage you to step outside the box and try eating dinner leftovers, too. Coach Matt eats curry for breakfast, I now routinely eat chili for breakfast, and we turned out alright (well, mostly).