Friday 28 July 2017

Cereal offender? Could breakfast be dangerous...

Health: Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal, Terence Kealey, Fourth Estate, paperback, 352 pages, €18.20

Sweet nothings: Kealey points out that the popularity of breakfast has waxed and waned across history
Sweet nothings: Kealey points out that the popularity of breakfast has waxed and waned across history
Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal by Terence Kealey

Robert Eustace pores over a new book by a university professor that suggests the first meal of the day may be doing more harm than good.

In The Chronicles of Clovis, a collection of short stories by Saki from 1911, one tale concerns a young man who is entrusted with reviving the fortunes of a rather unappetising breakfast cereal called Pipenta.

Understanding that "people will do things from a sense of duty what they would never do for pleasure", he renames it Filboid Studge and launches an advertising campaign depicting the damned in hell with the simple tag line: "They cannot buy it now".

Breakfast, like all pleasures, can be undermined in the name of health and morality and, unsurprisingly, Filboid Studge is a runaway success.

Professor Terence Kealey is no fan of breakfast. Not merely those cereals whose health-giving claims are somewhat undermined by an abundance of refined sugar, but the meal as a whole which, he argues, is not just harmful but in many cases lethal in the longer term.

Kealey is a biochemist and a scientist troubled by the flaws in the practice of his discipline. As a former vice-chancellor of the University of Buckingham, Britain's first independent university, he is an outspoken opponent of publicly funded science (which he blames for intellectual stagnation and entrenched error) and has been energetic in his call for more scrutiny of published data on climate change. The world of nutrition, he argues in this idiosyncratic and occasionally charming broadside, could do with similarly careful analysis. As Kealey points out, the most widely held nutritional orthodoxy of the last half a century, "fat is bad for you", has turned out to be total nonsense, so perhaps a robust challenge to the most important meal of the day is overdue.

Kealey points out that the popularity of breakfast has waxed and waned across history; the Greeks ate very little, the Romans the odd mess of porridge, almost none was eaten in the courts of Medieval Europe, but the Renaissance did much for its popularity with a growing middle-class needing something to sustain them through a longer working day. Our modern obsession with hearty breakfasting comes from the mid-19th Century, an era of muffins, chops and, as James Joyce would have it in Ulysses, "kidneys oozing bloodgouts in willowpatterned dishes".

It was opposition to this kind of indulgence that inspired the Seventh Day Adventist Dr John Kellogg to take action. Kealey pulls no punches in his discussion of this curious scientific figure, at one point assessing the possibility that Cornflakes, once the world's most popular breakfast cereal, may originally have been intended as "an energy-depleting anti-masturbatory tool".

Yet Kealey's light-hearted, engaging style never sells short the fervour of his argument. His commitment recalls a friend of Bertie Wooster's aunt, who "spoke as if she belonged to an anti-sausage league or a league for the suppression of eggs".

The mantra of Kealey's anti-breakfast league is twofold. First, he points out that successive studies supporting the idea that breakfast can improve general health and help weight loss are undermined by inconsistency and a failure to address other factors affecting large study groups. Breakfast-skippers, for example, tend to smoke and often come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Kealey's second argument is more personal. He is diabetic, and his study of the effects of eating on the levels of glucose in his blood led him to examine the effect of breakfast on insulin-resistance, which he regards as the great pandemic of our age (parallels are drawn to the Black Death). He suggests that our bodies are becoming inured to much higher levels of insulin, produced in response to the higher levels of blood glucose resulting from all our overeating.

This leads to a "pre-diabetic" condition which breakfast compounds dramatically, coming as it does during one of the body's few periods of fast and low insulin.

Laid alongside other aggravating factors such as the increasing amount of carbohydrate in Western breakfasts ("The modern American breakfast, with its waffles, cereals, toast and jam, is dessert"), Kealey constructs a compelling argument.

However, Kealey's scrupulous honesty means that ambiguity abounds. The reader is confronted by so many wildly diverse and conflicting studies of nutrition that the only certainty is how very little we understand. Indeed, for all its scientific credentials, Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal comes dangerously close to resembling a diet book.

Kealey cannot resist including the names of a few celebrity meal skippers (which, oddly, include the tubby emperor, Napoleon) and, by the close, is quoting from such gruesomely titled works as Eat. Nourish. Glow.

What saves it is Kealey's pragmatism. Not for him is the lazy assumption that everyone either wants to be thinner or to live to 100.

He quotes George Orwell's The Road to Wigan Pier, "[when] you are harassed, bored and miserable, you don't want to eat dull wholesome food. You want something a bit 'tasty'?" and closes with a discussion of what to eat if you feel you simply must have breakfast, in spite of all the advice to the contrary.

Cereals, "not just the foods of the devil, they are the actual devil incarnate", are obviously out of favour, but one other standby does pass muster. Dieting fads may come and go but, in the words of Ian Fleming, "scrambled eggs never let you down".

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