Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

The cheesy fast-food breakfast

By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, April 29, 2010

Since when did American cheese become a breakfast staple?

Nothing I have ever made for breakfast at home has included American cheese. But a quick survey of breakfast options at various fast-food joints shows that those cheese slices are among the most common ingredients. And, despite recent reports that fast-food breakfast sales have slid as the economy has slumped, there are now more of those meals on the market than ever.

Cheese has always been part of the iconic Egg McMuffin at McDonald's. Now it's in Burger King's version of the McMuffin, the Breakfast Muffin Sandwich. It's in the Dunkin' Donuts breakfast muffin and on the breakfast sandwiches that Subway introduced nationwide in early April.

Ads for Kraft American cheese make eating the peculiar little squares seem practically a patriotic duty. But a single slice adds 60 calories, 4.5 grams of fat (2.5 of them saturated) and 250 milligrams of sodium. (On the plus side, that slice provides 20 percent of the daily value for calcium.)

I don't mean to pick on cheese alone. But its ubiquity strikes me as emblematic of what's wrong with fast-food breakfast sandwiches in general. With a few exceptions (Subway offers such ingredients as egg-white omelets, "light wheat" English muffins, green peppers and tomatoes), they are full of fat and sodium and offer limited nutritional value. (See the accompanying chart.) They all contain protein, in the form of eggs and sausage patties, and maybe a dab of fiber if the muffin's whole wheat. That's about it, though.

As a big believer in personal responsibility and in free-market economics, I support people's freedom to enjoy whatever foods they like and, when it comes to foods with less-than-optimal nutritional profiles, to enjoy them in moderation. Heck, I even blogged favorably a few weeks ago about KFC's Double Down sandwich (you know, the one with two pieces of fried chicken in place of a bun).

But as David Kessler wrote in his book "The End of Overeating," the fast-food industry has stacked the deck by aggressively researching and using combinations of ingredients that they know humans are hard-wired to desire. Not content to control our minds at lunch and dinner, the industry increasingly offers at breakfast time that same fat-salt-sugar combination that makes a Whopper or Big Mac so irresistible. (Taco Bell, which reportedly is working on a breakfast menu, has already won the race to engage people in fast-food consumption round-the-clock; if its Fourthmeal concept weren't so scary, it would be funny.)

It should be noted that some fast-food places, including McDonald's and Starbucks, have introduced more-healthful breakfast options such as oatmeal.

But as Kessler says, "It's not just the food." The problem with fast-food breakfast, he says, is "the way it changes our eating behavior. It takes down the boundaries of when and where we eat and how we eat."

People in other cultures (Kessler cites the French) typically eat breakfast at home, at the table, even with their families. "That creates certain boundaries and protects them" from many poor food choices, he says. But fast-food breakfast sandwiches have promoted eating on the fly, often in the car, something the French would never do, Kessler says.

You can make a case that eating anything for breakfast is better than skipping your morning meal. And I'm sure I'll hear from folks reminding me that nobody's holding a gun to my head, making me eat a McMuffin.

But here's what really bothers me: Too many Americans have given over lunch and dinner to the fast-food industry. Breakfast -- whether a bowl of Cheerios and milk with a piece of fruit or a home-cooked omelet filled with fresh vegetables -- was a last bastion of home-based cooking and eating. Are we really in a hurry to surrender that meal, too?

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