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‘Should I use potato milk in my porridge?’: what you should really eat for breakfast | Breakfast

Lick the plate clean.

Can I skip breakfast?

“I think everyone should consider skipping breakfast as an experiment,” says Professor Tim Spector, author of the recently reissued Spoon-Fed: Why Almost Everything We’ve Been Told About Food Is Wrong. The question of whether breakfast is or isn’t good for us has been around for years – with the waters thoroughly muddied by research funded by breakfast cereal brands like Kellogg’s and Quakers. (You can guess what they concluded.)

“We’ve been told, culturally – and via marketing – that we have to have it,” says Spector. But a 2020 US study from the National Institute of Aging suggests that intermittent fasting – which can mean skipping or postponing breakfast – may have health benefits.

After spending time with a hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania, the Hadza, Spector is unconvinced about the need for breakfast: “I never saw anyone eating before about 10.30am, although they’d been up since dawn. They didn’t have a word for breakfast.”

Spector’s advice? “Try skipping breakfast once or twice, just to see how you feel at lunchtime. Some people might lose energy, others might feel better. It is individual, but there are advantages: you’re getting a long overnight fast, which in the new science of restricted-time eating has been shown to be good for metabolism and probably for gut microbes as well.”

Are oats good or bad?

Despite the popularity of porridge oats, and their ability to tackle blood cholesterol, in recent years there has been concern from wellness bloggers about the phytic acid in oats and its apparent ability to bind with other nutrients and prevent us absorbing them. The theory is that you don’t get all of the calcium from the milk in your porridge, say, or the phosphorus in the oats themselves.

But don’t expect a backlash anytime soon, says Guardian food writer Felicity Cloake. Oats have been a northern hemisphere staple for millennia and as Cloake says: “I think we would have noticed by now if everyone was dying of nutritional deficiencies.”

For Spector, this is another example of our reductionist tendencies when it comes to foods – which we never consume in isolation: “Phytates do reduce absorption of nutrients, but the question is, do they do that enough to make it an unhealthy food? Are there other things in that food that are beneficial? If you only ate oats, it might be a problem. If you have a diverse, balanced diet, aiming to eat 30 plants and vegetables a week – not a problem.”

He does think there are other issues with oats, though; chiefly that for him, and others who metabolise like him, oats can cause blood glucose spikes, unless he eats the unprocessed kind which have to be cooked for hours. “The other thing is that they have very high pesticide levels, because they’re sprayed much more than other crops.”

Lick the plate clean.
Lick the plate clean. Photograph: Kellie French/The Guardian

Is it OK to drink coffee on an empty stomach?

Spector’s research didn’t find anything harmful about having coffee or tea on an empty stomach. A 2020 study at the University of Bath suggested that ideally we’d drink coffee after breakfast, as it seems to have a negative effect on metabolic blood sugar control – meaning you get a spike from whatever you eat after drinking it, especially if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep. While a 2021 study by the University of Granada showed that about two coffees’ worth of caffeine may help us burn more fat when we exercise, an effect which is strongest in the morning.

What about starting the day with warm water with lemon to cleanse our systems? “If you enjoy it, then have it, but water and lemon is not evidence-backed,” says registered dietitian Dr Sammie Gill. “It’s linked with words like ‘cleansing’ and ‘detoxifying’, but our liver and kidneys already do a very good job of removing anything the body doesn’t need or want.”

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Will I live for ever if I put kale in a blender every morning?

Homemade smoothies can be a good way to up your plant intake, but they have downsides. Studies show that blending can speed up how the body absorbs naturally occurring sugars, causing the same metabolically unhelpful rises and falls as sugary drinks; they’re not great for tooth enamel; and when drunk at speed, won’t help us feel sated.

What’s better for you – bacon or cereal?

“Traditional breakfast cereals are ultra processed, however healthy they look on the packet,” says Spector, who is not a fan. “There’s so little to commend them: a combination of sugar and disassociated grains that have been melted, then pressurised and reshaped, with all the goodness taken out, and low-quality vitamins put back. It’s also true for things we regard as healthier, like muesli and granola.”

Bacon, meanwhile, contains three times the amount of protein, but much more salt. The evidence is pretty incontrovertible that meats processed with nitrites – chemicals used to keep bacon, ham and salami pink, as well as to speed up the curing process – are carcinogenic, but they are still widely used. In theory, nitro-chemicals prevent botulism, but many pork producers now opt out of using them, including every single maker of Parma ham for the last 25 years, without an increase in botulism. For meat eaters, bacon will always win over bran flakes, so if you’re craving a butty, do your damnedest to find nitrite-free bacon.

If you’ve got a fussy eater, is cereal better than nothing at all?

For a lot of parents, cereal is the only thing their kids will eat in the morning. But, says Gill, “the type of breakfast cereal you choose matters – for growing children, it’s important that healthy habits are developed from a young age, and once they are introduced to high sugar cereals, it’s often difficult to get them to accept lower sugar options. Choosing a cereal for children can be really challenging – what you think looks like a healthy option may not be.”

Oats, wheat biscuits, shredded wholewheat cereals or muesli (go for no added sugar or salt varieties) are good options, and adding chopped fruit, nuts, seeds and plain yoghurt will help create a more balanced breakfast.

Ketchup, HP or no sauce at all?

The best person to answer this is Cloake, whose next book is called Red Sauce, Brown Sauce: A British Breakfast Odyssey (out in June).

“Almost everyone I spoke to in the UK had an opinion,” she says. “It felt as though brown sauce was more northern and ketchup was a bit of a newcomer, more southern and possibly more middle class. If I had to join a camp then I’d say brown sauce, with its spices, is the connoisseur’s choice. Ketchup just makes everything taste of ketchup.

“But – and I feel like a bad British person for saying this – I much prefer English mustard in a bacon sandwich. And marmalade.”

Sorry, what? “Think about it – ham is often glazed with mustard and honey. A friend introduced me to it, and it feels like Damascene moment every time I eat one.”

‘Eggs are a source of protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and iodine.’ Photograph: Kellie French/The Guardian

Can I ‘go to work on an egg’?

This was the idea of the 1950s Egg Marketing Board, and as such can’t be considered unbiased nutritional advice. They aren’t a bad idea, though. “Eggs are a source of protein, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and iodine,” says Gill.

In the battle of the milks/mylks/m*lks, what’s the best option?

Milk is a minefield – there’s no clear answer. Cow’s milk produces at least three times as much greenhouse gas as any non-dairy milk; almond requires lots of water and is bad for bees; rice is water-intense and low in nutrients; coconut may contribute to deforestation, mono-culturisation and worker exploitation; and although soy seems better for health than previously thought, it is only sustainable if it’s not grown on land cleared from rainforests.

Better options are oat, which is a cool-climate product and shouldn’t require massive land-use changes if demand increases (huge quantities of oats are already used in animal feed) – though it’s relatively low in protein. Hemp and pea, which grow in the northern hemisphere and are naturally rich in certain nutrients, or potato milk – the very new kid on the block – are good.

A new potato milk, called Dug, is being launched in Waitrose this month, and claims to need 56 times less water than almond, as well as using half the land required to grow oats. The barista version works well in coffee, is creamy, doesn’t split and isn’t – unlike many plant milks – overpoweringly sweet. On its own (though maybe this is just me) it does have a very slight potato note, but you wouldn’t notice in something like porridge.

Almost all big-brand plant-based milks contain acidity regulators, emulsifiers or stabilisers, consumption of which some scientists are beginning to link with poorer gut health.

Whether you actually like any of the above in your morning brew, though, is an entirely different matter …

Which countries do breakfast better than the British?

Unlike our sweet, beige breakfasts, in many other countries the first meal of the day is as flavourful or spicy as any other, like Indian dal, roti and pickles. (There’s even some early evidence that adding more capsaicin via chillies to our diets might be good for gut health and help fight obesity, so perhaps we really should spice things up.)

“We’ve got into a rut in this country, and it’s a very high-carbohydrate rut,” says Spector, whose favourite breakfasts are those served in Korean and Japanese hotels, featuring things like miso soup, beans, kimchi, rice or noodles, meat or fish and vegetable sides.

“Many people – though not everybody – would be better off with meats, cheeses and egg, or fermented foods. Breakfast used to be just the leftovers from the evening meal the night before.”

He would like to see us embrace variety to find our own nutritional sweet spots. “We should be a bit more experimental and see what suits us.”

‘The world won’t end if you have jam on your toast.’
‘The world won’t end if you have jam on your toast.’ Photograph: Kellie French/The Guardian

Can I just have toast every morning?

You can, but it’s worth considering what sort of bread you toast, and what you put on it.

“Some breads are better than others – sourdoughs and rye breads will give you much less sugar and are high in fibre,” says Spector. The world won’t end if you have jam on it, but it is “a massive sugar hit, so maybe have it with cheese instead,” he advises.