Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Nutrition Debate #267: A “High Energy Breakfast Shake”

“The world’s healthiest foods” ( ) is a popular website that came to my attention a few years ago for their “in-depth nutrient profile” of the recipes they feature. Some of my favorite recipes are stovetop poached fish and vegetable dishes. There are no meat recipes, however, keeping with their altruistic mission “to help make a healthier you and a healthier world.” It’s otherwise a good site, so I can live with their bias – except when I think they are misleading us.

This morning's recipe for a “High Energy Breakfast Shake” on their site is described as a “quick-and-easy, nutritious and delicious addition to your Healthiest Way of Eating. And a great way to start the day!” Here are the ingredients:

     1 medium banana

     ½ cup whole strawberries

     1½ cups of low-fat milk

     2½ Tbs almond butter

     2 Tbs ground flaxseeds

     1½ Tbs blackstrap molasses

Blend all ingredients until smooth. Serves 2. (I dare you to make this shake and not drink the whole recipe yourself!)

One “serving” (HALF the recipe) contains 363 calories, 11.22g protein, 18.71g fat and 42.50g of carbs*, of which 27.17 are sugars. The full recipe is 85 grams of carbs. The shake is lowest in saturated fats, moderate in polyunsaturated fats and highest in monounsaturated fats. The “high energy” comes from the “sugar” jolt, and not just the simple sugars. The total carbs includes polysaccharides (long glucose chains) that are “predigested” by the blender to make them a liquid.

Quoting from “How do energy drinks work?” in the Science section of How Stuff Works, “Energy drinks are supposed to do just what the name implies -- give you an extra burst of energy. As it turns out, most of that ‘energy’ comes from two main ingredients: sugar and caffeine.” Well, the “High Energy Breakfast Shake” contains no caffeine. It’s all sugar.

But if this shake did contain caffeine (as in a Red Bull “energy drink” with 76.5mg), “Caffeine works by blocking the effects of adenosine, a brain chemical involved in sleep. When caffeine blocks adenosine, it causes neurons in the brain to fire. Thinking the body is in an emergency, the pituitary gland initiates the body's ‘fight or flight’ response by releasing adrenaline. This hormone makes the heart beat faster and the eyes dilate. It also causes the liver to release extra sugar into the bloodstream for energy [emphasis added].Caffeine affects the levels of dopamine, a chemical in the brain's pleasure center. All of these physical responses make you feel as though you have more energy,” according to How Stuff Works.

I’m writing this on the day after Halloween (All Hallows’ Eve, October 31st). The kids who went door-to-door in costume last night came home laden with candy, both in their baskets and their tummies. As we all know, sugar gives you that “extra burst of energy” because it is digested first and quickly. And everyone who gets a sugar jolt sees their blood sugar rise. If your metabolism is working well, your serum insulin also rises and carries the “sugar” into your cells where it is used or stored. What isn’t used or stored in muscles returns to the liver to be stored as glycogen and your “sugar” drops.

So we expect that binging on sugar, and sugary drinks especially, will certainly produce “high energy.” We joke that kids on sugar highs behave like “Energizer Bunnies” until they crash and fall asleep. Adults will too, especially if you start your day with this “high energy” breakfast shake. By mid-morning you will be in a slump… and hungry again. You are a sugar addict.

And if you have or are developing a slightly compromised glucose metabolism (or worse), then you no longer have the 1st insulin response. You also now have fewer functioning beta cells in the pancreas to produce insulin, and your destination cells have developed insulin resistance, which is to say they do not “take up” the glucose that the insulin is circulating in your blood. As a result, your blood sugar spikes through the roof and stays high, and the continuously circulating “sugar” damages your beta cells and starts to cause the dreaded complications.

Overloads, especially from liquids like orange juice and this “high energy breakfast shake,” although the latter certainly has more “nutritious” ingredients than the former, are definitely not a “great way to start the day.” Besides, remember that the sugars in bananas are 50% fructose. And that the liver makes fat (including a fatty liver) from big slugs of fructose.
* Compared to 24 grams of total carbs for 1 pack (2 “cups”) of Reese's Peanut Butter Cups or 33 grams for a Snickers bar.


  1. I've been doing really well drinking a cup of bulletproof coffee in the morning. The mct oil seems to modify the effect of caffeine consumption, because there isn't the same effect as just drinking plain coffee to get going. I've tested my blood sugar before and after and see no evidence that my liver is dumping sugar. I suppose I should experiment and just try the mct oil by itself.

  2. Jan, remind me: Are you having anything else for "breakfast" besides the bulletproof coffee? If I recall correctly, you are not, and you are still eating 500-800 calories total a day and getting lots of exercise taking care of your poultry operation. Am I correct? And you have had (previously) a VERY difficult time losing weight. (My memory is pretty bad.)

    The idea with MCT, as I recall, is that it gets burned rather than stored, as other saturated fats have a tendency to do. It has something to do with the chain length and the way they go straight to the portal vein of the liver and are there metabolized (catabolized?), rather than circulated and stored.

    So, in this sense, MCTs are pretty near perfect oils to eat. The nearest thing to it in a cooking fat is coconut oil, of course, but you already know that. (I'm alway hoping that others read these comments.)