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How the So-Called ‘Balanced Breakfast’ Reshaped America’s Morning Meal

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The role of advertising and nutrition in the changing definition of breakfast

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A breakfast spread in 1947.
A breakfast spread in 1947.
Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

When it comes to breakfast, there is an underlying elitism surrounding what qualifies as a "good breakfast." Eggs and bacon? Great. Leftover pizza? Not so great. Yogurt parfait? Terrific. General Tso's chicken? Not so terrific. Muffins? Fair game. Pie? Not so fair game. The distinction between what is or is not acceptable for breakfast seems arbitrary and counterintuitive. Part of it boils down to labeling — some dishes are simply not associated with breakfast — while a huge part of it involves nutrition and what is required for a healthy start to the day. But how did the definition of "breakfast food" eventually come to mean — for Americans anyway — dishes like cereal, bacon, and eggs?

How did the definition of "American breakfast food" eventually come to mean dishes like cereal, bacon, and eggs?

The problem with associations is that the concept of a "complete breakfast" varies from country for country — many unthinkable breakfast ingredients in the West are norms elsewhere around the world. In Japan, for example, the traditional breakfast includes rice, fish, miso soup, sticky soy beans, and nori seaweed, while in Cambodia, a rice noodle soup with meat and vegetables called kuy teav is common. In Indonesia, meanwhile, fried rice is a breakfast dish and in parts of India, roti with lentil soup is common morning fare.

The modern Western notion of breakfast is unique in its own way, varying from region to region, and has changed over time. What is accepted as an average breakfast today is unrecognizable, historically. Take Medieval Europe, where a typical breakfast for the well-off would have included alcohol and veal. "A standard breakfast for the Medieval period was bread, ale, and either cold meats or eggs for breakfast, depending on the time of year and day of the week," says food historian Caroline Yeldham. "Elizabeth I ate quite a large breakfast — chicken, mutton, rabbit, veal, and beef — usually served at 8 a.m."

A painting called "Breakfast," which dates to 1646. Photo: Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In the 18th century, notes Yeldham, breakfast was consumed at a later hour in the day with rolls, spiced breads, and cake on the menu. By the 19th century, two major trends emerged: hearty meat or fish-based meals, and sweet breads and cakes that were served with honey or marmalade. Heather Arndt Anderson, author of Breakfast: A History (and a regular Eater PDX contributor), points out that the upper-class Victorian household would have rice-fish pilaf kedgeree as a staple and poorer households would eat leftover meats with cornmeal mush.

In the United States, the Industrial Revolution changed how people ate in the morning — as people transitioned from an agrarian lifestyle to an urban one, the amount of physical work required declined and the traditional farmer's diet resulted in indigestion. But it was not until the mid-19th century, says Arndt Anderson, that breakfast earned the title of "most important meal of the day."

"Health nuts of the mid-19th century — like John Harvey Kellogg and other physicians, especially those affiliated with the burgeoning Seventh-day Adventist Church — played a role in establishing the phrase 'most important meal of the day,' but physicians and dietitians had been arguing the importance of eating in the morning for centuries prior to that," says Arndt Anderson. "One 17th-century doctor, Tobias Venner, recommended poached eggs with bacon and buttered bread, washed down with a glass of wine, as a healthy breakfast. Even earlier, most doctors quibbled about whether or not breakfast was okay to eat at all, but some argued that it was not only necessary, but that it was harmful to miss it, lest the stomach be filled with ill humors."

It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that breakfast earned the title of "most important meal of the day."

According to Arndt Anderson, the real change is in what's considered to be a "healthy" morning meal. Many modern dishes that are known to be part of a wholesome breakfast (like orange juice and bacon) are the result of "clever advertising campaigns in the early 20th century," says Arndt Anderson.

In fact, it was Edward L. Bernays, also known as the "Father of Public Relations," who is credited for making bacon and eggs the quintessential all-American breakfast. As an employee of a bacon company called Beech-Nut, Bernays had a vested interest in improving bacon sales. "We made a research and found out that the American public ate very light breakfast of coffee, maybe a roll, and orange juice," said Bernays in an interview re-run in 1905: Science's Miracle Year, an NPR series honoring scientific breakthroughs. "We thereupon decided that the only way to meet the situation was as follows: We went to our physician, found that a heavy breakfast was sounder from the standpoint of health than a light breakfast because the body loses energy during the night and needs during the day."

Bernays stated that the Beech-Nut physician, upon the company's request and with no financial incentive, sent out letters to 5,000 physicians to get their opinion. Newspapers publicized that 4,500 physicians supported a heavier breakfast for better health. "Many of them stated that bacon and eggs should be embodied with the breakfast and, as a result, the sale of bacon went up," said Bernays.

A breakfast spread in 1930. Photo: SSPL/Getty Images

Meanwhile, orange juice gained its position on the breakfast table after the National Fruit Growers Exchange promoted orange juice's high vitamin and acid content in the early 1900s. The national campaign was successful, as there was public panic over a fad condition called acidosis. This, coupled with the affordable and convenient creation of "fresh-frozen" orange juice, made the beverage a breakfast essential.

Currently, there is no denying the nutritional importance of breakfast: Researchers have found eating the morning meal is associated with boosting metabolism, better heart health, and reducing risk of type 2 diabetes. It also makes eaters more physically active, and enhances cognitive abilities like memory, attention, the speed of processing information, reasoning, creativity, and learning.

"My colleagues and I hypothesize that bodies need to be fed food regularly in order to maintain healthy levels of blood lipids such as cholesterol, hormones such as insulin, and normal blood pressure," says Leah Cahill, a registered dietician and visiting scientist at Harvard School of Public Health. "As we sleep all night we're fasting, and so if we regularly do not 'break fast' in the morning, it puts a strain on our bodies that over time can lead to insulin resistance, hypercholesterolemia, and blood pressure problems, which can then lead to heart disease. It's dangerous for people with type 1 diabetes, hypoglycemia, or taking blood glucose-lowering medications such as insulin to skip breakfast."

A direct comparison between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ breakfast food reveals that in many cases, the latter is healthier.

Starting your day with a meal is a wise move, but not all breakfasts are healthy. A direct comparison between "traditional breakfast food" and "non-traditional breakfast food" reveals that in many cases, breakfast food is less healthy. For example, the average slice of pepperoni pizza is 285 calories, while an egg-and-cheese breakfast sandwich is 340. Or take pancakes and birthday cake — two pancakes with syrup are 520 calories, while a slice of cake is 239 calories.

Then, there's cereal. The Environmental Working Group's analysis of 1,556 cereals on the U.S. market shows that many children's cereals are as sweet as cookies and should not be considered a part of healthy breakfast. (Note: a study published in BMC Medicine found that consumers of high-fiber cereals were 34 percent less likely to die from diabetes and had a 15 percent reduced risk of death from cancer.)

Nutritionally, one has to ask: Are traditional breakfast foods any different than dishes that are generally consumed later on in the day? Is a person better off eating cake or pepperoni pizza for breakfast than pancakes or a breakfast sandwich?

Could burgers and eggs be the next all-American breakfast? Photo: flil/Shutterstock

According to Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, owner of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It, breakfast is an important meal, and if removing labels and restrictions of what can or cannot be consumed for breakfast gets people eating in the morning, then that's not a bad thing. "I think we need to shape the 'traditional' label because for many of us, we might enjoy other items for breakfast that are otherwise not traditional," says Taub-Dix. "If that helps us to eat breakfast as opposed to skipping breakfast, then 'traditional' can go out the window."

"If changing definitions helps us to eat breakfast as opposed to skipping it, then ‘traditional’ can go out the window."

But that's not to say eating pizza for breakfast is good for you. And even within the realm of the breakfast world, there are several dishes that Taub-Dix advises should be avoided, including pastries, donuts, and muffins. "Muffins today are basically cake poured in a muffin tin," Taub Dix says. "If you look at something like a scone and coffee or a bagel and coffee, that is providing a lot of calories, but it could wind up zapping your energy instead of giving it to you."

When selecting what to eat for breakfast, there are certain elements to look for, whether it's traditional breakfast fare or otherwise. "Breakfast needs to include certain components," says Taub-Dix. "You need to include a combination of a lean protein, whole grain carbohydrates, and some healthy fat. When you include those components, you feel more satisfied."

So while you're selecting a healthy breakfast to kickstart your day, remember not to be too hung up on norms and labels. After all, the next big marketing campaign could make just about anything the new "breakfast staple."

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