From The Times
8 January, 2017
Why breakfast is bad for you, by Terence Kealey
We all know what the most important meal of the day is. Or do we? We talk to the scientist who argues that breakfast is bad for you
Some people think I’m mad,” says Terence Kealey, cutting into an octopus tentacle in a Notting Hill restaurant. “But 10 years from now, thanks to my book, eating breakfast will be as socially unacceptable as smoking cigarettes — and everyone will know that it’s just as dangerous.”
Kealey, a 64-year-old former Cambridge University lecturer, has not eaten the most important meal of the day — a phrase he despises — since 2008, when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. “I was relatively slim,” he says, “but I had the telltale signs: constant thirst, feeling increasingly tired, passing sugary urine through the night.”
His GP told him his disease was progressive and incurable. In Britain, where 4m people are diabetic, the condition leads to more than 7,000 amputations a year and, until recently, was the main cause of blindness in working-age people. But Kealey — who trained as a doctor and then specialised in clinical biochemistry and is a former senior clinical research fellow at the Wellcome Trust — refused to accept that view. “I bought a glucometer to test my blood-sugar levels,” he says. “At first I always ate breakfast, basing my meals on starchy foods. My glucose levels spiked alarmingly, especially after eating breakfast. I was almost guaranteeing that I would kill myself from a heart attack or a stroke, as 80% of diabetics do.”
Then he made a significant change. “When I skipped breakfast, my blood-sugar levels fell to within the normal range. Even after lunch and dinner, they didn’t rise anywhere near as high.”
Kealey believes that, thanks to his regimen, he has “effectively cured” his diabetes. “I still take medication, but some of my diabetic friends are now going drug-free after taking my advice.”
Now he has written a book — or manifesto — called Breakfast Is a Dangerous Meal. He believes firmly that what applies to diabetics is also true for the rest of us. “You need to be careful,” he says to me. “You’re 33 — far too young to be carrying abdominal fat. You had porridge today? Awful! Quit the carbs and quit breakfast.”
Can he be right? Everyone knows we should breakfast like kings and dine like paupers. But Kealey suggests that the “myth” of healthy breakfast only arose around the start of the last century, and was spurred on by the nutritionist Adelle Davison during a curious health scare in the 1950s when “low blood sugar” was blamed for a host of ills, including divorces, suicides and “brain fatigue”.
In fact, Kealey argues, the mantra that breakfast is healthy is a modern cultural phenomenon. Most Englishmen and women didn’t eat it at all during the previous millennium. And the meal had all but vanished from America until the 1920s, when a bacon giant commissioned the godfather of tobacco-industry PR, Edward Bernays, to rescue its market. One John Harvey Kellogg did something similar later. And this practice continues. In recent decades, a large number of scientific studies have found that people who eat breakfast are likely to be thinner, healthier and die later than those who do not. “The studies are invariably funded by the food giants,” says Kealey, his voice rising in pitch. “What the scientists and epidemiologists have been doing for years is a crime. People who typically skip breakfast tend to be at the bottom of the economic heap and have far more stress in their lives. Those who eat breakfast live longer in spite of it, not because of it.”
Nonetheless, I say, surely it’s common sense that we should fill our stomachs when we wake up, giving our bodies the energy they will need for the day. “It might seem so, but the biochemistry shows it’s not true,” he says.
“The evidence on the body’s ‘diurnal rhythms’ is growing,” says Zoë Harcombe, who has a PhD in public health nutrition. “The time of day we eat does appear to affect blood-glucose levels. But what we eat is still far more important than when we eat.”
Kealey and I meet at 1.30pm, when he tells me that he hasn’t eaten since 6pm the previous evening. I notice he barely eats: just a few spoonfuls of chickpeas, some vegetables and a mouthful of rabbit. “I’ve trained myself to have one meal a day,” he says. “I don’t get hungry any more, but it took a couple of years to get used to.”
His most crucial argument is that metabolic syndrome is the reason so many of us are getting fat, becoming diabetic and dying early. “Millions of people — including many doctors — think that high cholesterol, high blood pressure and simply being fat are making us ill,” he says. “In fact, these are symptoms of metabolic syndrome. Hardly anyone has heard of it, but it’s killing people like the Black Death.” Also known as insulin resistance, it is a state of prediabetes marked by chronic high blood sugar. Kealey claims almost half of British people aged 40 and over now have the syndrome; Harcombe says he is “absolutely correct” to warn us of its dangers.
How much of Kealey’s book should we take to heart? The professor may well be right that eating in the mornings causes our blood-sugar levels to spike more than at other times, and over several years that would predispose us to metabolic syndrome and diabetes. But he makes almost no distinction between bowlfuls of sugary cereal and poached eggs. “Of course some popular breakfast cereals are junk,” says Harcombe. “But they’re a world away from eggs and good-quality meat.”
Kealey recommends that non-diabetics who fear they will die of starvation without breakfast should nibble on “a boiled egg or a small piece of cheese” in the morning. But, he adds, “everyone who is 45, unfit or has a BMI higher than 25 should assume they are heading towards metabolic syndrome and skip breakfast”.
Fasting diets have been a significant trend in recent years. The evidence increasingly suggests that fasting is a healthy state: levels of insulin, blood pressure, triglycerides and cholesterol all fall. Kealey’s book may make an important contribution to this field, helping to overturn the belief that we should eat little and often. Perhaps, I think as I finish lunch with a still-rumbling stomach, the nutty professor is onto something.
Breakfast is a Dangerous Meal: Why You Should Ditch Your Morning Meal for Health and Wellbeing by Terence Kealey, Fourth Estate