Breakfast in the US is bad for you. I love all things breakfast: pancakes, waffles, bacon, biscuits and sausage gravy, sugary cereal, even creamy oatmeal. But, they are horrible; too much sugar and fat, calorie heavy, and low on nutrional benefits. 75% of what you can get should be classified as dessert.
Look at an IHOP commercial. Strawberry Shortcake Pancakes, Creme Brule Crepes, Cinnamon Roll Waffles. Even a tame version of waffles is still covered in syrup, whipped cream, and butter. Add in a Starbucks Mocha Latte, and you’ve ingested a month’s worth of sugar.
Before I launch to far into this post to discuss why this food is so bad for you, you should know a few weight conversions, so you can decipher nutrional guides and labels. 12 grams of sugar equals 1 tablespoon and has 46 calories. 3 teaspoons equal 1 tablespoon, so 1 teaspoon is 4 grams of sugar. 1 tablespoon of fat is 14 grams and has 120 calories.
Check out the nutrition guide from IHOP for my example below of a common breakfast.
2 Chocolate Chocolate Chip Pancakes
- Calories: 340 (110 from fat, 32%)
- Fat:12 g (saturated fat, 6 g)
- Protein: 9 g
- Carbs: 51 g
- Sugar: 18 g
What do you think? The calories aren’t awful, but if you are shooting for calories for breakfast of 400 to 700, you will have to eat something else at IHOP which might make this far worse.
Fat is 32% of the total calories, which is little high but still within guidelines. The American Heart Association limits saturated fat to no more than 16 grams per day, so these two pancakes take a chunk of that. Protein is only 11% of your calories, which is a little low for breakfast. Carbs are 60% of your total, which isn’t bad. See Livestrong for information from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans for more details on what your fat, protein, carbohydrates percentages should be.
We really aren’t bad until we look at sugar. At 18 grams, you have 1 and 1/2 tablespoons of sugar in your pancakes, keeping in mind we have not added syrup. The World Health Organization recommends limiting added sugar to 2 tablespoons a day, so breakfast eats up 75% of that.
Personally, I think even 2 tablespoons is high for someone striving for a healthy lifestyle, but given that Americans average 10 tablespoons a day, getting them to drop to 2 is going to be a challenge!
Back to the percentage breakdown. Your sugars are rolled up in your carbohydrates, but if you separate them, 21% of your pancake calories are sugar. 38% of your calories are complex carbohydrates. So why is that much sugar bad?
You know when you eat something like pancakes, feel the rush of energy, followed by being sleepy, then being super hungry again? That’s sugar hitting your bloodstream and your body using it up. That happens with foods with a high glycemic index. The glycemic index or GI measures how carbohydrates raise blood glucose, also called blood sugar. Glucose is the type of sugar your body uses for energy. The digestive process breaks down other sugars and carbohydrates into glucose.
Check out this chart to see how different sweeteners rank on the GI chart. Glucose is 100. Sucrose, which is regular white sugar, is 65. Coconut sugar is 35. This means white sugar will raise your blood glucose more than coconut sugar. Sweeteners with a lower GI can have the same amount of sugar by weight as a high GI sweetener, but your body processes the high GI sugar faster, so you get the spike. Food with a 55 GI or less is low, 70 and above is high, so sucrose is medium.
The GI applies to carbohydrates, so you also need to consider the other ingredients in your pancakes: white wheat flour, dextrose, and maltodextrin. White Wheat Flour is 75, dextrose is 100, and maltodextrin is 110. All of these starches are higher than white sugar! Maltodextrin spikes your blood glucose more than glucose. See this ingredient list for Krusteaz pancake mix for reference, so you see what to look for.
What that means for your diet is that while you need to keep you overall sugar below 2 tablespoons, you should also seek out sugar and ingredients that don’t spike your blood sugar, since the spike is always followed by the crash and intense hunger that leads to overeating, binging, and bad food choices.
The troubling part of this is that almost all highly processed food in the grocery store, the IHOP pancakes, McDonald’s buns, Pizza Hut pizza crust, and on and on contain white sugar, maltodextrin, dextrose, and white wheat flour. Even when avoiding the obvious sweet breakfast food, you are still dealing with high GI food.
With that info in hand, we should finish our breakfast. Recall that your calories are a little low at this point, so let’s add to our meal.
Realistically speaking, if we’re eating at IHOP, we’re going to get a breakfast combo. Let’s add
Two Fried Eggs
- Fat:12 g (Saturated Fat, 4 g)
- Protein: 13 g
Bacon (2 pieces)
- Fat:6 g (Saturated Fat, 2 g)
- Protein: 7 g
- Sugar: 1 g
- Fat:18 g (Saturated Fat, 3.5 g)
- Carbs: 28 g
- Sugar: 1 g
- Protein: 3 g
Syrup (1/4 cup, 2 oz)
- Carbs:54 g
- Sugar: 36 g
Totals, including pancakes
- Calories: 1090
- Fat: 48 g (Saturated Fat, 15.5 g)
- Carbs: 133 g
- Sugar: 56 g
- Protein: 32 g
Well that took a turn for the worse. Maybe you work out a lot, and 1090 for calories doesn’t kill your day. If your total calorie limit for the day is 2200, lunch and dinner together will need to be 1110 or 555 each meal. You’ve eaten a days worth of saturated fat. You have now eaten 4 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of sugar, so almost 3 more tablespoons than allowed. That’s a rounded 1/4 cup of sugar, as another visual for you. All of your carbs are sugar and high GI starches (white potatoes are 85), so you’re going to get that sugar spike than feel sleepy soon after. 48 grams of fat knocks out 62 to 77% of your daily fat, depending on you recommended caloric intake. Even protein might be a little high, but at least that will lessen slightly the impact of all that sugar on your system.
One thing I’m sure you note though is that only the sugar exceeds your daily allowance. Everything else is still within range for your day. So, maybe you can justify this meal by planning to eat well the rest of the day, or skipping a meal.
This is where all that high GI food bites you in the ass. Because you’re going to be super hungry all day. A light salad won’t make you full. Skipping a meal will only worsen the blood sugar crash. Next thing you know, you’ll be chowing down two double meat cheeseburgers with a large fries and chocolate shake at 11 pm. And this doesn’t even address the nutrients you are missing with this kind of eating.
So where does that leave you? First, I will say that high GI food isn’t all bad. After a hard workout, you may need white rice or potatoes to replenish the glucose and glycogen (the glucose stored in your muscles for energy) you burned. But, it has to be balanced with low GI food, so you have sustained energy. And first thing in the morning, you need food that gives you sustained energy and keeps you from making bad food choices later in the day.
Here is my typical breakfast.
I love vegetables with my breakfast, so I eat tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers. That’s 200 grams of fresh pineapple. The pancakes are from my A New Way of Eating post with 18 grams of no-added-sugar blackberry jam. I also have two egg whites and 2.3 ounces of lowfat or turkey sausage (regular sausage is high fat!). It’s bright, colorful, flavorful, and balanced. I use cooking spray like Pam for cooking the eggs and pancakes, so I have no added fat. Nothing has added sugar. The pancakes are whole grain. With the vegetables, fruits, and grains, I get a lot of fiber. And I get plenty of protein from the pancakes, egg, and lowfat sausage. The breakdown is 748 calories, 17% from fat, 63% from carbs, and 20% from protein. That’s a lot of food for appropriate calories, and I have no sugar crash. This is the kind of breakfast I recommend you have.
Since eating this way, I never have those sugar crashes. When I get hungry, it’s never that starving feeling. It’s my reward for eating well. And, as I wrote in another post, the couple times I tried eating out and having just regular pancakes and eggs with a little syrup left me feeling like crap for 2 days. So, the reward and the punishment keep me in line!
I realize it is a leap to eat like Holly and I do. We made the shift gradually over a few months. Unless your doctor is saying, “Change everything now or you will die,” try adding those vegetables and whole grains and cutting the fat and sugar a little each day. You’ll find your tastes change, so you adapt to the new food you’re eating. I hope my experimentation with recipes might be useful to you, and save a little time too.
Of course, I just talked about eating out in this post. Shopping brings its own set of challenges. That leads to the next issue to tackle, being tricked by healthy food.