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Fitness | KATHY SMITH

Breakfast Is the Most . . . Well, You Know

November 16, 1998|KATHY SMITH

I've always loved reading clever sayings and quotes, whether they're in books or on bumper stickers. That's why I bought Michael Levine's "Lessons at the Halfway Point" desktop calendar, which devotes a page per day to one of the author's musings on life after he turned 40. While many of them this year have brought a smile, until Oct. 20 none of them brought a vigorous nod of recognition. "The majority of overweight people I know skip breakfast," it said, "and the majority of thin people don't." Profound or not, truer words were rarely spoken.

The fact is, your body relies on breakfast every morning to kick-start its metabolism. But if you don't "break" the "fast," your body then has to protect itself by going into a modified starvation mode. Preserving calories that might be needed later, your metabolism slows considerably, and the activities that would otherwise burn 200 calories now burn many fewer.

This ancient response to the difficulty our cave ancestors had in finding food is a problem for your waistline. Scared and confused, your body doesn't know whether to horde the calories from lunch and dinner and snacks like a squirrel stockpiling nuts for the winter. And in any event your metabolism is set on low. The result? Fat. For anyone seeking answers to why America is suffering the highest percentage of overweight citizens in its history, this may be may the smoking-gun explanation: The 1990s has experienced a steady decline in breakfast eating. Coincidence? I don't think so. At the very least, fasting in the morning means you're more likely to overindulge later, the victim of out-of-control hunger.

Even apart from fat, however, it's not just breakfast's impact on metabolism that makes it the one meal you absolutely should not skip. Why? The calories you eat in the morning convert to the energy you need and want for the day's worth of activities. You wouldn't think of going on a long drive with a gas tank on empty, so don't demand that of your body.

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Then, too, a zillion studies confirm the fact that breakfast plays a gigantic role in cognitive functions. Students who eat breakfast, for example, regularly outperform students who don't in all subjects, but particularly in math, which requires the most complex and logical mental processes. Meanwhile, breakfast eaters are also less likely than their fasting counterparts to be depressed, moody or fidgety in the mornings.

Of course, these results apply to grown-ups, too. Studies repeatedly show that though they may be unaware of the effect, adults who skip breakfast are at a distinct mental disadvantage overall, and are less productive than their well-nourished colleagues. (They're also more likely to be fat.)

I know, I know: You're not hungry in the morning, and anyway, you don't have time to eat a good breakfast. Well, in my experience, breakfast is an acquired hunger. If you're really convinced that it's important to eat, and you "force" yourself to do so for a few days before going off to work, you'll soon get turned on to breakfast's power. And you'll probably begin waking hungry.

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Which leads us to the time issue, which for me is a nonissue. I mean, you wouldn't ever go off to work without dressing or combing your hair or brushing your teeth. So, come on. How long does it take to make three-minute eggs? You can even save time by putting a pot of water on the stove the night before. Then get up in the morning, turn on the fire under the pot the same time as you turn on the teakettle (or coffee maker), come back in a few minutes for your tea or coffee, and lower a couple of eggs into the boiling water. If you think that still takes too long, then try hard-boiling them the night before. Nothing could be easier.

Oatmeal? A cinch. My favorite kind, McCann's Irish, is absolutely delicious, but it's supposed to take 30 minutes. I've discovered, though, that you can reduce the time to 10 minutes if you soak the oats in water overnight. Then all you have to do is come into the kitchen, turn on the fire, bring the pot to a boil while you're in the shower, and just like that, a hot, wonderful, satisfying, comforting breakfast.

Cold cereal? By my count this morning, filling a bowl with Shredded Wheat, slicing a banana over the top and adding skim milk took all of, oh, 48 seconds.

You might also consider getting away from the American breakfast model and begin eating foods we generally associate with later in the day, like cheeses, meats, fish, even soup. In much of the world, breakfast is anything people want it to be. Maybe approaching the morning that way will help you get into the habit.

The point is, Mom was right. Breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. And not just because it helps to keep you lean. If, however, that's what motivates you to begin eating a nourishing breakfast, you'll get no argument from me. As someone once said, "Whatever works."

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Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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