Cabin Fever Breakfast

What’s Happened to Breakfast?

Breakfast has been through a lot lately. Skeptics have demoted it from “the most important meal of the day” to the “most marketed meal of the day.” It’s been knocked around by changing nutrition fashion trends on cholesterol, carbs, and protein. It’s been asked to last all day long and prop up flagging sales at McDonald’s.

A morning meal was mainly a luxury for the rich until the industrial revolution drew people into cities for long hours of factory work. With that change in people’s lives, breakfast became a necessity for the working class to make it through the day. As it did, a marketing and public relations battle took shape to define the most righteous and healthful breakfast. And the battle continues today.

In an entertaining account of cereal marketing published by The Atlantic, Alex Mayyasi points out that “the most successful food trends tend to combine science and morality.” John Harvey Kellogg delivered on this formula when he developed his corn flakes and preached a philosophy of “biologic living.” Mayyasi tells us:

Dr. Kellogg believed that eating biologically would solve much more than dyspepsia and indigestion. Like Dr. Graham with his graham cracker, Kellogg believed Americans’ meat-centric diets led them to carnal sins. “Highly seasoned [meats], stimulating sauces… and dainty tidbits in endless variety,” wrote Kellogg, a vegetarian, “irritate [the] nerves and … react upon the sexual organs.”

Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, set up the other side of the battle between carbs and protein for breakfast. To advance Beech-Nut’s bacon business, Bernays orchestrated a survey of physicians seeking their support for the idea that a heavy breakfast of bacon and eggs would be best for the health of the American people. The ensuing public relations campaign placed stories about the importance of bacon and eggs for breakfast in newspapers around the country.

The rest is more or less history. Bacon and eggs took a blow in the 1980s when dietary fashion shifted to favor carbs over protein for breakfast. One result is that American breakfasts now have more in common with sugary desserts than the “biologic eating” that Kellogg once espoused.

McDonald’s is fighting back, serving up more than two billion eggs annually and ramping up those numbers with its wildly successful decision to serve Egg McMuffins all day long. The cereal business finds itself on the ropes.

Mixing up nutrition with moral imperatives might not advance science, but it sure sells a lot of eggs, bacon, and cereal.

Click here for more about the sad state of American breakfasts from Vox and here for more on cereal marketing from The Atlantic.

Cabin Fever Breakfast, photograph © smilla4 / flickr

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July 15, 2016

One Response to “What’s Happened to Breakfast?”

  1. July 15, 2016 at 9:05 am, Susannah Southern said:

    As an RD working with people to reach their health goals through weight loss, both surgical and non-surgical, I have to say, I am very much in favor of breakfast. Even though I agree that skipping breakfast may not cause weight gain for everyone, if a patient of mine is skipping breakfast, I am going to suggest eating breakfast as a strategy to help with weight loss. If anything, the patient has another opportunity to get in some of the nutritious foods they need to have the energy to think, exercise, plan and prepare meals… Some interesting research is being done on meal timing, calorie distribution, internal clocks and when we are more insulin sensitive, and other aspects of the “when to eat” part of metabolism. I would love to see more calorie controlled studies with different meal patterns and macro nutrient distributions compared.
    Thanks for helping us keep the spotlight on quality research vs leaps of “science”.