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Why Do We Eat Dessert For Breakfast?

Breakfast is often cupcakes and cake with different names, like muffins and yogurt. That does not bode well for our waistlines. 

Pedestrians are reflected as they walk past a Times Square restaurant window display May 15, 2003 in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

To breakfast or not to break fast? Fans of intermittent fasting say no, let your body burn off the previous day’s calories before starting the cycle again. Others claim the morning meal to be the most important. As with much of nutrition, vested interests respond with science that strengthens their argument, which is not good science.

Consider how your body breaks down food. Let's say cake, which is predominantly carbohydrates and fats. Fat is processed by your liver; some of it is immediately utilized as fuel while the rest is stored in muscles. Whatever is left over is stored in adipocytes, fat cells, throughout your body. Most of this will become subcutaneous fat, as well as visceral fat, which collects around your midsection. 

The enzymatic process of turning carbs into glucose and fructose occurs when saliva interacts with whatever you put in your mouth. Cake contains plenty of glucose—from flour as well as table sugar and milk sugars—that your bloodstream quickly utilizes. Your body demands an enduring supply of glucose, but too much proves to be toxic. In the long run, cake doesn’t help.

Your pancreas pumps out insulin to regulate your blood sugar, with some it heading to your liver. Your liver is already busy turning glucose into glycogen, but the carbs are slowing the process, turning the glucose into fat cells. Most of the glucose (about 80 percent) is being used as energy for your brain, organs, and muscles. The carbs are the real problem, changing how your liver processes fat.

Such is the case with the fructose broken down by your saliva. Once again your liver is being taxed, as fructose can only be processed by that organ, unlike glucose, which is employed throughout your body. Fructose is stored either in your liver or systemwide as, you guessed it, fat cells. 

Now, suppose you eat that delicious cake in the morning. As the day goes on you might try to use the energy through the release of glucagon, produced by the pancreas, and cortisol, produced by your adrenal glands. The real problem with this dietary decision, however, is ingesting copious amounts of sugar first thing. Harvard paleoanthropologist Daniel Lieberman explains what cake does to your body: 

Not only are you getting more calories than you need, but the lack of fiber causes you to absorb the calories faster than your liver and pancreas can handle them. Our digestive system never evolved to burn that much sugar that fast, and they respond in the only way they can: shuttling much of the excess sugar into visceral fat. 

No one would ever eat cake for breakfast, however. Right? Now consider the ingredients: flour, butter, eggs, and sugar. What goes into muffins, pancakes, banana bread, cereal, and the predominant amount of foods offered in most every cafe and restaurant during the morning hours, as well as sold in supermarkets in the breakfast section? 

Javier Zarracina at Vox created the chart below to highlight the sugar content of popular breakfast foods. The most eye-opening is the link between a muffin and cupcake. I’m guessing the vegan muffins made with “organic sugar” at my local coffee shop is not innocent. The reality is few cafes offer anything healthy in the morning hours. 

Zarracina and Julia Belluz take to task many assumed healthy options, such as granola and yogurt. Sure, yogurt can be a good option, but only if you purchase plain. Pretty much every other flavor is loaded with sugars. As they write, the Icelandic Siggi’s specifically caters to a low-sugar market:  

Every serving has about 100 calories and 25 to 50 percent less sugar than mainstream brands. Plain yogurts from any brand are a safe bet, and it's always a good idea to steer clear of yogurts with names like Key lime pie and Philly cheesecake.

Other options they suggest include eggs as well as a Japanese breakfast: fish, rice, and miso soup. I start my mornings with a smoothie blended with bone broth protein, almond butter, MCT oil or coconut milk (not coconut water), plain kefir, and a couple of berries. I keep the fat high and sugar low. 

How you start your day reverberates until sleep. How much you ingest during the day matters, but is not the only consideration. Lieberman trounces this longstanding myth that “calories in, calories out” is the main driver in obesity and weight loss. Type of calories matter. He writes, 

Foods rich in digested glucose supply lots of calories and make you hungrier sooner. People who eat meals with a higher percentage of calories from protein and fat are less hungry for longer and thus eat less food overall than people whose calories come mostly from sugary and starchy foods. 

Eating dessert for breakfast sets you up for constant cravings as your insulin levels spike early. More hunger means more calories and, as your willpower wanes throughout the day, more carbohydrate-heavy comfort foods, which keeps your liver working overtime. Instead you can eat plenty of fat calories that are turned into usable energy by your brain, muscles, and organs. Keep consuming carbs early on and the process eventually leads to obesity and, sadly the case for too many people, type 2 diabetes. 

Given the pervasiveness of nutritionally cheap muffins, donuts, and “breads” served every morning in America, the only real option we have is to stop buying them. Only then will they stop being offered—the market as it is intended to work. Yet as long as we keep buying they’ll keep being produced. Cheap nutrition to create as well as to ingest, but metabolically expensive to correct. Trading convenience for health harms everyone in the long run.


Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/18 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.

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A neural crêpe

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The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."

Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum

Image source: Sereno, et al.

A complicated map

Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."

That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.

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This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."

Bigger and bigger

The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.

"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."

As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."

Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."

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