The French adore their crepes and croissants, while the British feast on bacon and baked beans for breakfast. The Egyptians relish ful medames, a savoury fava bean stew, and Nigerians cherish plantain. The Brazilians savour feijoada, a soup made with black beans, and Colombians favour changua, egg and milk soup, especially as a cure for a hangover.
The Vietnamese habitually devour beef pho noodles while the Japanese take comfort in miso soup.
What is considered a “good breakfast” varies enormously around the world – perhaps tradition is the only common factor. Breakfast habits die hard, with some even dating back centuries. For the morning meal, our stomachs tend to choose what we’re familiar with. And, nowadays, what is quick.
We should eat our best for breakfast. After fasting for several hours while sleeping, we need to fire up our metabolism with nutrients. Logically, the “best” breakfasts may be those offering a variety of nutrients through fresh, filling and, of course, flavourful ingredients.
That’s why the typical Turkish breakfast is said to be healthy: it comprises lots of mezes (small dishes) of power foods such as olives, eggs, honey, tomatoes, white and feta cheese, yogurt and parsley.
Yogurt and cheese contain whey, which offers protein, and that makes us feel full and helps weight control. Recent research indicates whey is more effective at controlling blood sugar than protein sources such as eggs, soy or tuna. But eggs are also an excellent food for breakfast, as they contain a rich quantity of nutrients, as do fruits and vegetables.
Time magazine cited our own nasi lemak as a “healthy” breakfast option. True? Certainly the peanuts and ikan bilis (dried anchovies) offer a good protein punch – but not all nasi lemak are created equal.
“How does one make a statement that nasi lemak is healthy when the meal can vary so much in ingredients and serving size?” asks Dr Tee E. Siong, the Nutrition Society of Malaysia’s president.
In the past, he says, the dish was simpler, comprising a small portion of rice with a few condiments such as ikan bilis and peanuts. Nowadays, egg, fried chicken and squid are added. “The serving size is just too big,” he says. Indeed, the gourmet nasi lemak may rack up several hundred calories – a substantial share of our daily calorie allowance.
What about pau, rice porridge and bread? Consider appropriate fillings, Dr Tee says, suggesting red beans, ikan bilis and peanut butter in pau or on bread, and chicken slices or fish with porridge.
Beans, including lentils, are a super source of nutrients, including proteins, and fibre. Thus thosai, which contains black gram lentils, wins over calorie-laden roti canai.
Dr Tee suggests taking healthy options more often, and eating more wholegrain varieties of foods. Wholemeal bread or brown rice have more nutrients and fibre than their refined versions. Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread or processed cereals, break down relatively quickly to sugar, leading to weight gain.
Processed cereals, the modern invention for breakfast, sometimes compare poorly with traditional breakfasts. They lose nutrients during processing – when grains get crushed, cooked, dried, rolled and shredded. Many cereals are also sugar-laden, especially those aimed at children. The American Environmental Working Group said sugar was the main ingredient in its list of the 10 “worst” cereals, making up 41% to 56 % of the weight of these cereals.
The best foods are those closer to their natural state, such as rolled oats. If you have little time to cook, consider Swiss or Bircher muesli. Here the oats are not cooked; they are simply soaked overnight (in water, milk or apple juice), to soften them. Traditionally, yogurt, nuts and fruits – particularly apple – are then added to the oats, creating a power food.
One traditional breakfast I am partial to is puttu, which I make with steamed red rice flour and ragi (millet). It is often eaten with a coconut sambal that contains dried fish, onion and chillies.
We are often creatures of habit at breakfast. But Dr Tee says moderation and variety are key. “Eating something we love every other day is NOT moderation,” he says.
“I believe what many people do now for breakfast is they rush out of the house, go to the office, find a coffee shop or stall and have a nasi lemak or roti canai or fried noodles plus a sugary drink one day. The next day is the same, and the next and the next.”
What’s needed, he says, is for families to sit down to a proper breakfast. “We must seriously invest in promoting healthy eating among children,” he says, and that will take “a mindset change”.
Indeed, we need our minds to convince our stomachs.
Mangai Balasegaram writes mostly on health, but also delves into anything on being human. She has worked with international public health bodies and has a Masters in public health.