Any child of the 80s and 90s remembers breakfast cereal commercials with little leprechauns and cuckoo birds exclaiming that the sugary bits of rainbow-shaped marshmallows and toasted oats are "part of a complete breakfast."
So how can a cereal that leaves a colorful bowl of sugar-milk behind be good for you?
And what is the definition of a "complete breakfast" anyways?
A recent video by the American Chemical Society's Reactions channel has got our answer, and it's surprisingly simple: all you need for a complete breakfast are carbohydrates and proteins.
So, technically a bowl full of sugar (a type of carbohydrate) would fulfill half of that equation, therefore, making it "part" of a "complete breakfast."
Carbohydrates are the starches, sugars, and fibers that you get from grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Your stomach and small intestine break them down into smaller bits of sugar, including glucose — the body's most essential energy source — and other simple sugars like lactose, sucrose, and maltose.
These sugars are great for your brain, which consumes a whopping 120 grams of glucose per day — or 60% of your daily glucose usage. This equals about half a cup of granulated sugar.
Once your body has enough glucose, it stores leftovers in the liver and skeletal muscles as glycogen. This backup is available when your body needs more sugar than your bloodstream can supply, during quick bursts of energy needs while exercising for instance. And if these stores are full, your body then converts glucose to fat.
For the best energy base to get you through the morning, chose carbohydrates that come from fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and whole grains, not freeze dried marshmallows.
Part two of this magical complete breakfast equation is proteins, which construct the building blocks of your cells and are responsible for transporting oxygen in your blood. They are very good at keeping you full and satiated for a long time.
Your digestive tract breaks proteins down into small chains of linked amino acids called peptides. One of these compounds, called peptide tyrosine-tyrosine, literally tells your brain to stop being hungry.
Proteins also trigger the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which activates the reward center of your brain and eventually makes you feel full. This means that you'll eat and crave less throughout the day.
But not all proteins are created equally. Stay away from protein sources high in saturated fats, like bacon and red meats, which can raise levels of cholesterol and put you at risk for heart disease.
Eggs are one of the best sources of protein as they also contain all of the B vitamins and vitamin D. And if you pair them with other high protein and good carb foods like avocado, leafy greens, and tomatoes, you've got yourself a nice balanced breakfast.
What about those sugary cereals?
Cereal manufacturers are allowed to say that their products are part of a "complete breakfast" because they technically include half of the equation, the carbs. But these aren't the right kinds of carbs.
Carbohydrates come in two main categories, simple and complex. Your body pulls energy from them at different speeds. Complex carbs, like whole grains, brown rice, and quinoa, take longer to break down and therefore supply energy at a more even level for a longer time.
Simple carbs, like refined sugars, deliver a quick spike of energy to the brain, but then taper off quickly. This is why you get a sugar rush immediately after eating sweet foods, but then crash and end up hungry again shortly after.
When you have a ton of sugar in your blood, your pancreas releases insulin, which then stores the extra glucose in fat or muscle cells instead of shuttling it to parts of your body that need energy.
So essentially, eating a ton of sugar at once makes it go straight to fat without ever getting the chance to be energetically useful.
Nice try, Lucky Charms.
For more on the chemistry of a balanced, complete breakfast, check out the whole ACS video here: