Why eating a typical French breakfast will ruin your mood, skin and sex appeal

French breakfast
Eating refined carbs (like croissants and white bread) can lead to inflammation, which breaks down collagen and elastin in the skin - Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

Back in 2017, Vogue ran an article entitled ‘How to do breakfast like a French girl’, illustrated with a photograph of a beautiful, slim and haughty-looking woman clutching a currant-studded brioche with a fluffy white poodle at her feet. The interview advised croissants as the dejeuner ne plus ultra, with the addition of jam as an optional “weekend delight”. Ooh la la!

Chances are, however, that had the beautiful girl scoffed the brioche, you might not have thought her so attractive a couple of hours later. Because now the French have made a new discovery: that basically, croissants make you ugly.

Yes, you read that right: scientists at the University of Montpellier have discovered that people who ate a breakfast rich in refined carbohydrates – like a baguette with jam, alongside fruit juice and a sugary cup of tea or coffee – were rated less attractive than those who started the day with healthier, unrefined carbs. So if you want to look your best in the morning, it might be wise to put down the bread knife.

Never have I felt more smug at having adopted the intermittent fasting diet, in which I do not eat breakfast at all.

So why should this be the case? Could ditching the pâtisserie really be a means of addressing our plummeting birth rates, or preventing divorce?

Admittedly my husband rarely seems that enamoured of the cook-from-frozen croissants I occasionally whip out as a weekend treat, but I didn’t realise they were having that much of an effect.

“We were not surprised by the results,” Dr Claire Berticat, an evolutionary biologist and the lead author on the study tells me. “The harmful effects on health of excessive consumption of refined carbohydrates are well known. So we sought to delve deeper into this relatively under-researched area.”

And while it might seem quite niche, the results do make some sense. Dr Berticat explains: “among other things, excessive refined carbohydrate consumption can accelerate glycation processes in the skin, leading to premature ageing and a decrease in overall skin health.”

In simple terms, eating refined carbs can cause your insulin levels to spike, which causes inflammation. This inflammation can break down collagen and elastin, resulting in saggy, old-looking skin, which is also dry and dull.

The effects, say Dr Berticat, can be noticed straight away, but eating refined carbs regularly can lead to chronic hyperglycemia and insulin resistance, and will also slow your metabolism and so the ability of your body to quickly turn over new skin cells.

All of which means you shouldn’t be avoiding refined carbs just at breakfast time, but most of the time. Otherwise you’ll end up looking as old as Methuselah in a matter of months.

Caution, of course, should be exercised. “I wouldn’t read too much into one small study,” warns Dr Tim Spector, a professor of genetic epidemiology and the founder of the Zoe programme.

“Lots of other things are going on when you’re having a carb-based meal than blood sugar – that’s just an easy thing to measure.” He suggests that “humans are very good at detecting someone whose body is showing signs of stress, and what we’re doing with highly refined carbs is increasing our inflammation levels in the blood.

“That’s raising our immune system and sending signals round our body that we’re in a state of combating illness or infection, so it makes sense that humans might be able to detect that.”

It all seems a bit scary. Surely a croissant isn’t going to do me that much damage?

But then I cast my thoughts back to when I was eating breakfast and remember that yes, those mornings that were fuelled by a milky latte and a pain au chocolat gave me a pleasant glow for about 20 minutes, but left me feeling bloated, sluggish and snappy shortly after.

“I used to eat like that and I was always very tired about three hours afterwards,” agrees Spector. And we can all agree that nobody wants to lean in for a kiss with a tired, grumpy person.

Eat like that and, says the nutritionist Dr Gabriela Peacock, “you’ll be on a blood sugar rollercoaster. It will spike, and then get so low that you’ll present as miserable, rather than attractive and sparkling”.

What we should be doing instead, advises Dr Peacock, is adding fibre and protein, which are “essential to keep your energy levels nice and balanced throughout the day”.

Eating a protein-rich breakfast instead instead can balance blood sugar levels - Claudia Totir/Getty

This means eggs, live yoghurt, porridge oats with milk – carbohydrates, basically, are OK as long as they’re unrefined and with protein added. Tellingly, the ‘attractive’ alternative to the baguette with jam in the Montpellier study was stoneground wholemeal bread with butter and cheese, an orange or apple and tea or coffee without sugar – in other words, a breakfast that was very similar to the ‘ugly’ one, but with the fibre in the bread and the fruit kept in, and the addition of protein to balance the blood sugar levels.

Spector “adds cheese to most things”, which is definitely something I can get on board with (although again, a word of caution: just whacking a load of brie on anything at all is not necessarily going to improve your health prospects).

Grabbing breakfast on the go? A croissant is easy, but these days it’s not hard to go for a less insulin-spiking option even if you’re out and about. Spector opts for a bag of mixed nuts, a bottle of kefir or a piece of whole fruit, while Peacock rates Pret’s granola pots with yoghurt, a ready-made bircher muesli or a pre-packaged pot of hardboiled eggs; “they may not be the most attractive thing, but they’ll keep your energy levels up, make you feel full and they’re full of B vitamins which will give you a burst of energy.”

If you’re dining at home, meanwhile, you might also want to think about adding some colourful fruit and veg into your morning meal: multiple studies have shown that this diet-related alteration is rated more attractive than an equivalent sun tan.

Essentially, the carotenoids found in things like red and yellow peppers, spinach, apricots and melons make their way out through your sweat glands and back into the outer layer of your skin, giving you an attractive glow.

Eat these things and “within a few days your skin will become more yellow and golden in tone,” confirms David Perrett, a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, who has studied facial cues for health.

Time to ditch the French girl breakfast then. The poodle, however, remains optional.


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