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Why Your Sugary Breakfast Isn't "Bad"

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Photographed by Phoebe Chuason.
We don't do diets. But we still love to eat — and we want to eat well. In her column, How To Eat, Refinery29's favourite intuitive eating coach Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, will help you do just that by answering the food and nutrition questions that really matter. Send yours to heythere@refinery29.com.
How bad is it to eat a sugary breakfast? My acupuncturist once scolded me for having fruit and oatmeal for breakfast because she said it spikes my blood sugar first thing in the morning.

This is a great question, and I hear it a lot from my clients. The short answer is that a sugary breakfast isn’t "bad," but it just may not always make you feel your best.

While an acupuncturist isn’t the best person to take food advice from (for example, I wouldn’t call oatmeal and fruit “sugary,” actually, but more on that later), yours is right that eating a helping of carbohydrates alone does cause your blood sugar to rise more quickly than if you had something more balanced, with protein, fat, or fibre in addition to the carbs.

That’s because when you eat carbohydrates, your digestive system breaks them down into a type of sugar called glucose, which is the primary source of fuel for all your body’s needs. Sugar is a type of carbohydrate. In fact, all sugars are carbohydrates — but not all carbohydrates are sugars (the other main types of carbs are starches and fibre). In general, sugars are broken down into glucose more quickly than other types of carbs, which means they are absorbed into your bloodstream more quickly and can cause a blood-sugar “spike” followed by a dip, if eaten alone.

This means that if you have a truly sugary breakfast, you probably won’t feel energised for long. But, if you eat sugars with other foods that slow their absorption, that spike-and-crash pattern can be avoided. Take, for example, your oatmeal-and-fruit breakfast. Sure, fruit contains some natural sugars, but it also has a nice dose of fibre, which helps reduce the blood-sugar spike. Ditto the oatmeal, which in its plain form is mostly starches and fibre, with no sugars at all. And whether you sprinkle a little sugar on plain oatmeal, eat a packet of the pre-sweetened kind, or buy a bowl from your favourite cafe, your oatmeal still probably contains less sugar than cold cereal (which is still an okay breakfast choice, if that’s what you want).

In fact, you should eat some carbs with your first meal; your body needs and craves them in the morning, since your brain runs on glucose, and you’ve been deprived of it all night long. (This is why it’s no coincidence that aside from eggs, many of the most common breakfast foods are starchy or sugary — whether it’s oatmeal and fruit or pancakes, waffles, cereal, croissants, or sticky buns.)

So, the real question is: How does having oatmeal and fruit for breakfast make you feel? Try this for yourself: The next time you eat that oatmeal-and-fruit breakfast, try noticing how long it takes you to get hungry again and how your energy levels are throughout the morning. If you’re eating lunch a couple hours later, you may not even notice it, but if lunch isn’t for a while longer, what happens? What about if you add some peanut butter or walnuts to the oatmeal — how long does that last you?

You can try this with any of your other favourite breakfast carbs, too: If you just get the pancakes at brunch, how energised do you feel a couple hours later? What about if you add a side of eggs? Which has more “staying power,” the spinach-and-cheese croissant or the plain one? In this way, you can intuitively figure out what works best for you, and not have to label any of your favourite foods as “bad.”

Which reminds me: Not to be the semantics police, but I want to talk about the word “bad” really quick. It’s totally normal to use this kind of shorthand when talking about food; it’s endemic to the culture we live in. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the word is problematic because it implies some moral failing for eating in a certain way. This is important, maybe more important than a lot people realise, because one of the keys to a healthy relationship with food is not attaching any moral value to food choices. Otherwise, you can end up feeling self-critical when you eat “badly,” and self-criticism has been shown to raise the risk of disordered eating. Plus, it encourages others who might be at risk for an ED to talk about food in this way as well.

So, try to catch yourself when you start to describe certain foods or ways of eating as “bad” (unless you’re talking about a bad taste or spoiled food), and instead reframe the description in less-loaded terms.

And don’t let anyone scold you for your food choices, even if that person is sticking you with needles.


Christy Harrison is an NYC-based registered dietitian nutritionist specialising in intuitive eating, eating disorder recovery, and Health at Every Size. She writes about food and nutrition for various publications and hosts Food Psych, a podcast dedicated to improving your relationship with food.
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