DAVID GREENE, HOST:
It's time to discover something new about food, as we've been doing every few weeks. I was sitting in the studio recently and NPR's Allison Aubrey came by for a visit.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, David. Well, I'm going to wait to reveal this dish here. It's covered so you can't see what's in it but...
GREENE: And there's a computer monitor in front of it too so...
AUBREY: Yeah. OK.
GREENE: ...So good cover. I have no idea what you have over there.
AUBREY: So today we are going to talk breakfast. Now, this is something that...
GREENE: It's my favorite meal.
AUBREY: ...I know you been interested in.
AUBREY: And we're going to get down to answering a very simple question that always seems to be swirling around, and that is, is breakfast really the most important meal...
GREENE: You are...
AUBREY: ...Or can you just skip it?
GREENE: We're going to be conclusive about this today.
AUBREY: Well, stay tuned. OK.
AUBREY: Now, to tee up this conversation, I want to take you back in time a few decades to listen to one of the most powerful factors that shaped the American breakfast habit.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Catch that leprechaun. He's got Lucky Charms. They're magically delicious.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Count Chocula) I'm the super sweet monster with a super sweet new cereal, Count Chocula.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Tony the Tiger) They're great.
GREENE: Tony the Tiger, I can taste the Frosted Flakes in my mouth right now. My childhood.
AUBREY: (Laughter) So cereal really came as the ultimate convenience food, right? All you had to do is open up the bag...
AUBREY: ...Put in a little milk. And it was an alternative to the cooked breakfast - you know, the bacon and eggs that took time, the farmer-style breakfast. You know, if you didn't do cereal, there were also all these other ready-to-eat muffins and doughnuts, and most of them - here's the bad part, David - laden with sugar and refined starch.
GREENE: Which is bad, right?
AUBREY: Well, given what we know today, a breakfast of just this kind of sugary cereal is not the way to start the day, and here's why. I am going to hand you a little handful of these wheat kernels here. Take a look at them. And I'm going to pass them over.
AUBREY: This is how you make flour or wheat cereal. When bread makers or cereal makers refine these little kernels, they've basically got two options. They can use the whole thing including the little tiny germ that's inside that's packed with all of the good stuff - so folate, magnesium, protein, fiber. Or they can refine it out and just leave the starchy part, which doesn't have as much nutrition. And what's left moves through our bodies really quickly and can spike blood sugar. I spoke to David Ludwig of Harvard Medical School, and here's how he explains the potential problem.
DAVID LUDWIG: It's not a coincidence that the obesity epidemic got its start as we began replacing the typical higher-fat, higher-protein meals and breakfasts in our diet with all of these processed carbohydrates.
GREENE: Oh, God. We're blaming the obesity epidemic in part on my favorite breakfast cereals?
AUBREY: Well, hang on here. Now, we're told that breakfast is the most important meal, right?
AUBREY: We hear it all the time. But the fact is that a lot of people are skipping breakfast. And we did this little informal Twitter survey and found that about 1 in 5 people say they skipped breakfast or just had coffee. Here's what David Ludwig says about this question of do you have to have breakfast.
LUDWIG: If that breakfast is based on highly processed carbohydrates, be they grains or sugar, it may be as bad or worse than skipping breakfast.
GREENE: Better to have nothing than to have one of those unhealthy cereals.
AUBREY: That's basically what he's saying. And to me, I really think we've been asking the wrong question. It's not whether you need to eat breakfast, but what kind of breakfast you should be eating. It's the quality of the breakfast that can determine its impact on our hunger and our metabolism throughout the day.
GREENE: Can I ask a personal question?
GREENE: So I love eggs.
AUBREY: OK - oh...
GREENE: I make a couple eggs every morning...
AUBREY: All right.
GREENE: ...in the microwave.
AUBREY: There you go.
GREENE: Is this too - can you compare this to the awful cereals you were talking about?
AUBREY: OK. So actually here is the big reveal, David.
AUBREY: I'm about to lift the cover off of this hot plate here.
GREENE: Oh, are you going to show me some eggs?
AUBREY: I am going to show you what one expert told me is the ideal breakfast. I'm going to hand it over to you.
GREENE: Is that an omelette?
AUBREY: That is an omelette.
GREENE: Oh, you are the best colleague in the entire world. You're going to make me feel like I make a healthy breakfast every morning.
AUBREY: Just for you. So it's eggs. Those eggs are loaded with protein, some fat, which really slows down digestion...
AUBREY: Gives you that nice steady energy, probably the reason you eat the eggs. And look in there. What's inside that omelette?
GREENE: It looks like spinach.
AUBREY: That's a bunch of greens, kale, now, that's probably...
GREENE: A lot of greens, kale.
AUBREY: ...not something your grandmother would have put in her eggs, right?
GREENE: No, I'm looking for the melted cheese. Am I not...
AUBREY: (Laughter). So there's not cheese in there.
GREENE: There's no melted cheese, OK.
AUBREY: Let me tell you, I got the kale thing from a physician. And see what's sprinkled on the top there?
GREENE: Yeah, it's like little shells or something.
AUBREY: Little pumpkin seeds.
GREENE: Pumpkin seeds. Not something I usually...
AUBREY: And those...
GREENE: ...Put in my omelette, but OK.
AUBREY: Those are a good source of zinc and magnesium that are thought to play a role in fending off anxiety.
AUBREY: So it turns out your breakfast, David, you know, with all of those eggs, they're going to give you that nice steady energy. And if you put the other stuff on top, maybe the pumpkin seeds, maybe can help keep you in a good mood...
AUBREY: ...throughout the whole day.
GREENE: ...During the day. And the yolk is in these eggs, right? I don't have to go egg white?
AUBREY: Those are real eggs.
GREENE: OK. And if I throw a tiny bit of cheese in, would I be ruining everything?
AUBREY: I think you can throw in a tiny bit of cheese if that makes it taste better to you.
GREENE: OK. I mean, this looks lovely, pumpkin seeds and everything. Not something I'd have on hand in the morning. So here's what I do. I come in very early because I'm hosting this radio show...
GREENE: ...and in the middle of the night, I throw a couple eggs or some egg-like stuff in a carton that I buy at the store, and microwave it with some cheese and some salt and pepper.
AUBREY: Got it.
GREENE: And it just sort of blows up into an omelette in a mug in two minutes.
AUBREY: Whoa. OK.
GREENE: Is that, I mean, that feels, like, pretty healthy.
AUBREY: You know, I would say that if that works for you and you like it, that is your way of having eggs. I think a lot of people might be listening to this and be like, oh, my God, I don't have time to turn on the stove, make eggs. Actually, if you look at the inside of that, David, it's burned.
AUBREY: I was trying to make this as I got my kids out the door, (laughter). So you can see, not always possible to...
GREENE: NPR's food correspondent burns her omelettes so don't be ashamed if you burn yours.
AUBREY: ...Not always possible to do the full breakfast. So I think if you don't have time for eggs, just think about checking a few key nutritional boxes. You want some protein, you want some fiber, you want a little bit of fat to hold you for several hours, until lunchtime. And so for me really, though, oftentimes that's a little bit of yogurt with no sugar and those pumpkin seeds and maybe a piece of fruit.
GREENE: And if you want to go back to the cereal, I mean, the real bare-bones cereal, like, you know, just like, some grain with some milk...
GREENE: ...I mean, is that - is that OK?
AUBREY: Here's what I would say. I would say cereal makers, they get this. I mean, they know. You'll see this all the time now on labels. You see cereal makers adding back in more protein, more fiber, more of the whole-grain and taking out the sugar.
GREENE: And that's a good thing.
AUBREY: And that's a good thing.
GREENE: So we're not banning cereals all together.
GREENE: OK. Allison, thanks a lot.
AUBREY: Thanks so much, David. Enjoy.
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