When you don’t eat gluten, breakfast can feel like a nightmare. Even worse if you avoid grains altogether as in the paleo diet, in which I dabble, mostly unsuccessfully. Not eating toast, cereal or oats (which sadly I can’t tolerate due to the gliadin I assume – a much greater loss that gluten) was something I found it very hard to come to terms with. I can find fantastic GF pasta, I eat a lot more rice and sweet potatoes, but I do miss toast and cereal in the morning. My mum makes the most amazing bread, and I fear I will never eat it again. The decidedly sub-par gluten free bread you get most places is not worth the substitution. Even bloody cornflakes have gluten in them. But it's ok - I have found GF ones. And they're covered in maple syrup, so that's worked out well.
So I mourned for breakfast, and forced to find ways to reimagine this meal, I discovered a few things.
1. You can eat anything for breakfast
It was a bit of a revelation to me that you don't have to have cereal and toast for breakfast. The main problem with avoiding gluten when you are new to it is getting carbs, because that's where our society is accustomed to getting most of its carby foods. And I need carbs. Although I now eat a low-carb diet in relative terms, I simply can’t subsist on protein and veg.
It was my husband who first suggested to me that I eat "normal food" for breakfast. I gave him the pitying yet irritated you just don't get it do you? look. "I don't want to eat pasta or mash for breakfast, it's just wrong."
Turns out I was wrong. I was thinking that normal food meant a typical dinner meal, but the options are subject only to your imagination, ability to adapt existing meals, and your willingness to trawl the internet for great ideas other people have had. And if you eat eggs you can make almost anything into an omelette. Mushrooms, sweet potato, onions, leftover veg, cheese. You just have to wean yourself off the limited idea of breakfast being what we were trained to think it is.
A lot of our ideas about what we should eat and when are received wisdom, such as it is, sometimes generated by the food industry who want to sell us purpose-made, meal-specific foods. Most of us have had a bowl of cereal for dinner with that feeling of doing something slightly odd, so entrenched in our perception of meal-appropriate food is cereal. Well, you may not balk at the idea of porridge as an occasional late-night snack, but how about steak for breakfast? Or Pad Thai? There isn't actually any reason why not, and making our first meal of the day grain and dairy based does not appear to be particularly advantageous from a health and digestion point of view. It's also quite a recent development in terms of our eating habits - it’s all a question of habit.
2. Not eating breakfast is actually a good idea
Over the course of the last few years, digestive issues being quite high up the list of things I deal with daily, in literature relative to dietary health concerns, I have frequently come across two things I really wish I had known about a long time ago.
The first one is something called the Migrating Motor Complex. To sum up, your digestive system works on a timer. When you eat, your digestive system is activated to start a cyclical process. It performs a set of actions which culminate in a “cleaning out” of your intestines with a sort of sweeping motion. After a certain length of time after you have stopped eating, the MMC will complete this internal, auto-cleaning process. If you are constantly eating between meals, your digestive system will rarely get the chance to complete this important manoeuvre, and this can allow a build-up of bacteria in your small intestine, as it never gets fully emptied. You don’t want bacteria in your small intestine – they should be in your large intestine. Bacteria in the wrong place leads to a seemingly endless list of potential problems. As I’ve said before and will certainly say again, what you eat largely dictates your health status, and you need to allow your digestive system to complete the maintenance routine it is programmed to undertake periodically.
This is of course in direct contradiction to the advice we have generally received,
about it being better to eat small amounts throughout the day, and this being better for our metabolism. I have noticed that I eat at the times I identify as meal times even if I am not hungry. Especially since we started eating our dinner at 6 with Flora. I am not always hungry enough for dinner at 6, especially when I snack all afternoon.
What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for the next, but I have noticed, now that I am really paying attention (too much, probably) that I am eating when I’m not hungry because there is food everywhere around me all the time, and that I feel much better when I eat less. In fact, I have come to realise that the later in the day I eat my first meal, the better I feel. This realisation comes with some regret, as breakfast feels like quite a sacrifice.
But it makes sense. First of all, we all eat way too much, and the food we eat is very rich – my diet, as I’m sure yours does, probably rivals that of Henry the eighth decadence-wise. Actually it probably leaves his diet trailing. So my body is constantly occupied with digesting and detoxifying, and this is actually a huge strain on the entire system. Enter intermittent fasting.
This is the second thing I have read quite a bit about recently. The 5:2 diet was very popular, and I didn’t pay any attention as I thought it was a fad diet, but there is something physiologically very sound about the idea of calorie restriction. You will have to forgive this over-simplification (I recommend this site for a good explanation) but here is a very quick breakdown of the two major benefits – weight loss, and wider general health benefits though the body's ability to heal itself.
When your body is digesting it is largely occupied with that purpose, which is quite taxing. The more rich and complex the food the harder your body works, and the longer this takes. When your body has finished digesting and is in a fasting state it does two things: it starts to burn fat, and it begins to busy itself with other household duties, mainly repair work. Fasting triggers a process called autophagy, during which your damaged cells are recycled or removed. This is why fasting is starting to be thought of as a potential tool for treating cancer – I read that this week. And this is why in order to heal from most things, it makes sense to eat less often. It's not the amount you eat, necessarily, but the time over which your eating is spread.
The idea of fasting has been present forever, appearing in many religions – surely not a coincidence. Often traditional societies seem to have intuitively known things that we can now verify with science as genuinely valuable insights into our health and wellbeing (like the fact that turmeric is anti-inflammatory – how did they know that in the east hundreds of years ago?). The Bible, for example, contains the fast of Daniel which involves eating only vegetables for ten days. Then there are the fasts of
Ramadan and Yom Kippur, and Buddhism also advocates some fasting. I am
not religious by any means, but this combined ancient wisdom seems to make a good collaborative case for the occasional abstention from the act of eating, for the sake of purification, both physical and psychological. Turns out they’re all right. The advantages of not eating for health reasons are now being studied with a view to addressing all manner of modern ailments, beginning with overweightness, but reaching diseases affecting the brain.
There is even a diet meticulously devised by an American, Professor Valter Longo, which is designed to trick your body into thinking it's fasting by only allowing foods which are easily digested. In theory this enables you to reap the benefits of fasting without having to starve completely. This seems like something which will certainly be utilised by medical science if it can provide the results it claims to. And I believe it will.
Andy was reading a book from which he read me an interesting few lines the other day. It was about how we are the first generation in history to be preoccupied with eating less. Overeating is a modern plague, an epidemic, and the abundance and variety we have managed to provide for ourselves is doing us harm.
When I found out I had MS, and I eventually had the courage to, I Googled it and watched YouTube videos of people talking about how they lived with it, how they managed it and in some cases how they believed they had cured it. I was quite convinced by those who claimed that fasting played a key role in the reversal of their symptoms - and not just MS but a range of illnesses. Some were religious and had decided to do the biblical fast. Others were doctors who understood the physiological process as a means to improving their health. But the mechanism is the same.
I lack the mental strength and flexible lifestyle to make a dramatic fast feasible, and my illness has made me thin so I don't think going too long without eating is a good idea at the moment, but I am certain that eating less frequently makes me feel better. I have found these ideas logical to the point of being liberating. I have obsessed so much about eating the correct foods, that I have been eating very heavy and rich foods, when perhaps what my body wants is a bit of a break from complicated meals - especially since I do precious little exercise at the moment.
When you wake up what your body really wants is to be rehydrated. I drink hot water with lemon when I wake up every day, and I have also found that a walk before breakfast improves my digestion for the day. I hope with these little things I will gradually improve my digestion, because with poor digestion life is pretty miserable.
So I try to do the 16-8 version when it's practical: eat dinner early, then fast until lunch the next day - not actually too challenging. Then, between lunch and dinner you eat what and when you like (within sensible boundaries.) So it's 16 hours of fasting, most of which is overnight, and 8 hours of eating. The for the rest of the time, your body gets a break from filtering the nutrients from the heavy meals we tend to eat. Have ever noticed that people who live to be old and healthy are those who tend towards minimalism rather than excess?
Otherwise I eat a more varied range of breakfasts, and I try to adhere to the MMC cycle, and leave a minimum of four hours between meals. The idea is that your body needs time to stop digesting and start healing, and I think this is important for me, so I am trying to implement it. A good rule of thumb is, in short, eat only when you are
genuinely hungry. And crucially, breakfast is not really the most important meal of the day - certainly not universally.
3. There are many, many alternatives available
If you slowly work at shifting your idea of what qualifies as a suitable breakfast meal towards foods other than the things you previously accepted as normal for that time of day, you suddenly open up a lot of possibilities, the first one being leftovers. That idea of eating cold pizza for breakfast need not be a representation of a clichéd student lifestyle choice. It actually makes sense.
However, I adore the more traditional breakfast foods, so here are my family’s top 3 GF breakfasts - after bacon and papaya (that’s just me these past few weeks).
My top 3 gluten-free (and optional dairy) breakfasts
We eat these most weekends - Flora is a fan. They're vastly adapted from Nigella's buttermilk pancakes, but banana pancakes recipes really are ubiquitous. I think our version is pretty fab, and it cooks very easily.
Makes about 12, easily doubled
150g of GF flour
1 ripe banana
250ml of plant milk (we use almond or hazelnut) but you can use yoghurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon of GF baking powder
½ teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda
This is what we use - the only plant milk I have found with no sugar and no oil.
Butter, berries, chopped nuts, yoghurt, maple syrup, honey
1. Stick everything in a blender and blend until smooth. You can then keep the mixture in the fridge for two days. I tend to make it the night before so it’s ready to go. I use my Nutri Ninja and keep it in one of the smoothie cups, so it can just be poured straight into the griddle. Give it a good shake first.
2. Pour the batter into a hot grill pan or frying pan and cook for about 1-2 minutes on each side. Then top with whatever you like! Keep them warm in a low oven until the batch is all ready.
Andy particularly likes this, and I miss porridge a lot, so this is a pleasing replacement. We adapted it from a recipe in Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, and combined it with another paleo breakfast recipe, but I just can’t remember where on the internet I saw it...
It’s a great base for a very easily adapted breakfast. You can basically put whatever you want in it, and I love that in a recipe. Andy usually prepares the mixture the night before, and then makes the porridge in the morning on the hob. Warning - it's very high FODMAP and quite sugary. You can add some honey but the squash and banana mean it’s not really needed.
Serves 4, or 2 for two days
1 small butternut squash or two sweet potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks and roasted the night before
(just spread the pieces in a roasting dish and cook until soft - 30 mins to and hour)
2 tablespoons of ground nuts (we use almonds and walnuts, quickly pulsed in the food processor to a coarse crumble texture)
2 tablespoons of ground flaxseed
1 tablespoon of chia seeds
1 mashed banana
2 teaspoons nut butter or pumpkin seed paste
½ teaspoon of mixed spice or cinnamon powder
100ml of plant milk
2 eggs, for the extra protein if desired
fresh berries or compote
maple syrup or honey for drizzling
1. Mash up the banana and butternut, and place in a small saucepan with the milk and the dry ingredients. Break in the eggs if using then mix well.
2. Heat and stir for a few minutes until the consistency is porridgy and the eggs and cooked, then serve and top with fruit.
Black rice and coconut bowl
This recipe is inspired by the famous Ottolenghi rice and mango breakfast recipe (all hail). I actually like mine better, partly because mango is very sugary and I can’t really have it as it’s super high FODMAP.
Serves 2, or one person for two days.
1 cup of black rice (I use Black Venus)
1 tin of coconut cream or a cereal serving each of coconut milk (less rich and what I tend to use)
1 tablespoon of pumpkin seeds
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1 papaya (amazingness of papaya saved for elsewhere)
handful of nuts (walnuts, pistachios, pecans, whatever you like or have to hand)
1. Soak the rice overnight. Sadly, I would not recommend skipping this step. The black rice takes a long time to cook – easily half an hour, and this step reduces that. It is also important to neutralise anti-nutrients. Wash it well, then place in a bowl with water and some salt or a bit of vinegar and cover. Leave for at least 12 hours, ideally rinsing halfway if you pass by.
2. You can make the rice the night before and then simply reheat it in the warm milk the next morning. Either way, place the cooked rice and milk in a saucepan, heat gently and add in the rest of the ingredients except the fruit, which you can use to top the bowl before serving.