Brain Facts

Brain Facts

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Breakfast - sustenance or sugar rush?

16 August 2007

"EAT a good breakfast - it's the most important meal of the day." If there is one dietary message that generations of mothers have drummed into their children, this is it. The advice to mothers has always been similarly clear: feed your kids the right stuff for breakfast and they will be able to concentrate all morning. Feed them poorly and they will struggle to stay awake in class.

Yet this tried and trusted advice has started to come unstuck. As we learn more about the way the body and brain regulate sugars, the idea that breakfast is always the best way to start the day is increasingly being challenged. In fact, eating breakfast can sometimes be worse for mental and physical performance than going hungry.

Of the many nutrients in your diet, the brain can use just one for fuel - glucose - which your body derives from carbohydrates in food. Unfortunately, says Leigh Gibson, a biopsychologist at Roehampton University, London, this simple fact has led to several myths. One is what Gibson calls the "mythology of the sugar rush". The myth goes like this: after eating a high-carbohydrate meal or sugary snack, the level of sugar in the blood rises rapidly, sending a rush of glucose to the brain. This provides it with a temporary boost of power, but is swiftly followed by a sugar crash and a dip in mental energy.

In a recent article in the journal Nutrition Bulletin, published by the British Nutrition Foundation, Gibson reviewed 25 years' worth of research into the effects of glucose on the brain. He concluded that while the brain certainly does run on glucose, the idea that eating sugary foods will boost mental ability is at best an oversimplification.

The sugar-rush myth stems from what is known as the oral glucose tolerance test, which measures blood glucose levels in people who have fasted overnight and are then given a super-sweet glucose drink. This test, which is designed to help diagnose diabetes, does produce a rapid spike in blood glucose, often followed by an overcompensating crash.

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