What you should really be eating for the most-skipped meal of the day, and why you should start if you haven't already.
Seize your morning with breakfast. It not only sets the tone for the entire day, but it also offers us a way to jumpstart your engines to better health. The quality of this first meal is essential; many of us look to overly-sugared, refined carbohydrate-based items (think donuts, pastries, muffins, and bagels) that may actually have a huge negative impact on our health.
Cooking breakfast is a hassle that most of us don't want to face on time-crunched weekday mornings. And because of that, most of us fall to convenience – processed foods, a drive-thru, a sugar-filled granola bar, or for many nothing at all. It's a lonely meal. Unlike dinner and lunch, breakfast is often eaten on the commute to school or work or at best, scarfed down at the office while checking e-mail. But does this really matter?
Research on breakfast is contradicting. Some studies show that eating a healthy breakfast leads to improved memory and cognition and elevates mood. Others have proven that skipping breakfast doesn't necessarily help or harm weight-loss efforts or metabolism, though it may be linked to lower energy levels during physical activity and less stable blood sugars in the afternoon and evening.
"The worst situation is having refined carbohydrates on an empty stomach," explained David Ludwig, director of the Optimal Weight for Life Clinic at Boston Children's Hospital, in an interview with NPR, "because there's nothing to slow down the digestion of that carbohydrate into sugar." Obesity researcher Louis Aronne, MD, director of the Comprehensive Weight Control Program at Weill-Cornell Medical College, found a huge difference in blood sugar and insulin response when refined carbohydrates were consumed at the beginning of a meal. The surge in insulin that follows the rapid digestion of refined carbohydrates is a known contributor to fat gain, not to mention fatigue.
Think quality over quantity. Breakfast doesn't have to be elaborate, but it should exist. Eat a balanced breakfast, and you'll have a better morning. You may even eat less lunch. Not sure what exactly to eat? Let us help you get started.
Eight Ways to Breakfast Great
1. Start your day with whole grains. Carbohydrates are an essential source of energy for your day, but choosing the right carbs will make all the difference in whether you end up with a snap of energy or the need for a nap: Start the day with a sugar-coated white flour pastry, and you'll tank in 2 hours.
Research shows that the most detrimental substance you can fill your body with after a 10-12 hour fast is refined flour and sugar, which is exactly what most classic breakfast items are made from. Our blood sugars are at a low first thing in the morning. But shocking them with refined sugars and carbohydrates will cause you to crash a few hours later, leaving you drowsy and less able to concentrate by mid-morning.
Rethink the blueberry muffins, jelly-topped toast, cinnamon rolls, syrup-soaked waffles or pancakes, biscuits, fruited Danishes, glazed donuts, jam-filled croissants, and sugar-coated flakes, o's, or clusters. Instead, opt for whole grains, and give them a savory spin: avocado-schmeared whole-grain toast, nut buttered oatmeal, scrambled eggs on a whole-grain corn tortilla, or a savory spin on scones.
2. Drink coffee. (But don't start if you never have.) There's strong and consistent evidence showing that, in healthy adults, moderate coffee consumption is not associated with an increased risk of major chronic diseases like cancer, strokes, and heart disease. Moderate is defined by the USDA as less than 400mg/day of caffeine, or about 3 to 5 (8-ounce) cups of coffee. However, individuals who do not consume caffeinated coffee or other caffeinated beverages are not encouraged to incorporate them into their daily morning routine.
Just last year, in a systematic review and meta-analysis of 36 studies (involving nearly 1.3 million people), researchers found that those who drank their daily 3-5 cups of coffee were actually at the lowest risk for heart problems. The long-running Harvard Nurses' Health Study has found that coffee may also protect against type 2 diabetes.
But these benefits are singular to just coffee—black coffee—not the mostly milk and sugar coffee-based beverages from places like McDonald's (a large mocha has 500 calories and 63g sugar), Starbucks (a skinny grande pumpkin spice latte has 260 calories and 49g sugar), or Dunkin Donuts (where the medium frozen caramel coffee has 450 calories and 106g sugar).
3. Stop throwing away the egg yolks. They're packed with good fats, protein, and nutrients. Eggs are a low-calorie, high-quality nutrition powerhouse. One egg has just 70 calories, 6g of satiating protein, and a mere 1.5g saturated fat (that's less than in a tablespoon of heart-healthy olive oil). Eggs are also a good source of vitamin A, vitamin D, folate, and choline (a vitamin-like nutrient that's especially important for the creation of memory cells) and vision-boosting antioxidants called lutein and zeaxanthin – all of which are primarily found in the yolk.
A large egg contains 185 milligrams of cholesterol, 62% of the now-dissolved daily limit of 300mg. For many, that's still a hard number to look past on the label (thanks to the 1984 cover of TIME magazine). Most of us don't need to fret about cholesterol in the diet. Harvard researchers found that eating an egg a day had no substantial impact on the risk of heart disease among healthy men or women.
4. Revisit the cereal aisle. But first, arm yourself with our One Rule to Live By. Cereal Rule to Live By: Remember 5:5:10 when reading box labels. We were delighted to find over 40 varieties that met this criteria among the bright, colorful, overwhelming sea of choices.
At least 5 grams fiber: Jumpstart your daily fiber goal of 25-38 grams at breakfast. Make 5g the baseline, more is even better. Up the count with fresh fruit or nuts.
At least 5 grams protein: Naturally occurring proteins are best – whole grains, nuts, and seeds – instead of those that contain added proteins or "isolates," which are highly processed.
Less than 10 grams sugar: The equivalent of about 2.5 teaspoons – less is better. Any more than that and you've entered glazed donut territory. Added sugars should be low on the ingredient list, never first.
NOTE: Skip the cereals marketed to children. Not one of them met our criteria. While most manufacturers have made a lot of changes to lower the amount of sugar in these choices (a step forward!), many are still lacking in protein and fiber, averaging about 2g of each.
5. Buy whole milk yogurt. Yes, the kind with more fat in it. Unless you're having some eggs or a spoonful of nut butter with that carton of light or 0% yogurt in the morning, you may want to reconsider. Eating dairy fat alongside a healthy diet may actually help you lose weight. A recent review published in the European Journal of Nutrition reported lower body weights, less weight gain, and a lower risk for obesity among full-fat dairy eaters. "None of the research suggested low-fat dairy is better," said Dr. Mario Kratz, lead author on the review. More and more research is revealing that when the amount of fat is reduced in the diet, it's replaced with sugar or carbohydrates.
Full-fat yogurts are thicker, creamier, and more satisfying than the fat-free versions. They're less processed, have a cleaner ingredient profile, and most importantly, they taste better. The fat softens the tang, creating a more pleasant spoonful with a mightier mouth feel. Unlike the 100-calorie light containers (often artificially sweetened, too), full-fat yogurts boost satiety, helping you eat less overall throughout the day.
Most individual containers (usually 4 to 6 ounces) of whole-milk yogurt have under 200 calories and less than 5g sat fat – a perfectly healthy profile if that's what you're planning to eat for breakfast. A 6-ounce container of plain, unsweetened yogurt has about 8g of naturally occurring sugars. Anything more than that has likely been added (and we've seen some varieties with more than 20! Buy plain, and add your own fresh fruit or a drop of honey if you need a little sweet.
6. Add bacon to your breakfast routine. The good thing about most breakfast proteins – bacon, sausage, country ham, and other cured meats – is that they're packed with flavor. The not-so-good news is that they're also packed with sodium, calories, and often saturated fat. Have your bacon (and eat it, too!) by using a small amount of this savory breakfast protein to season an entire pan of plants. The sizzling fat coats the vegetables in a layer of smoky flavor. Bonus: You actually need the fat to absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A and K. So in a way, the breakfast protein makes the plants healthier.
7. Do your best not to skip breakfast. The first thing you choose to eat each day may set the tone of your mood, energy levels, and metabolism for the entire day. Findings from a study called the Bath Breakfast Project found that eating within 2 hours of waking (rather than skipping the morning meal altogether) can make a difference in the way you metabolize glucose all day long, helping to maintain more stable blood sugars after lunch and dinner (unstable blood sugars equals unstable energy levels).
Few of us have time to cook, and yogurt isn't for everyone. Good news: there are plenty of savory options in the freezer of your local supermarket. These picks are filled with protein, fiber, and whole grains--and won't break the sodium or fat bank. Ready in minutes.
8. Sit down. Most of us eat breakfast while doing a million other things, and we forget we've even eaten breakfast at all. Take a step back, forget about your emails, your meetings, the kid's crazy schedule, and take 5 minutes to focus on resetting your brain. Take a moment to savor each bite - notice the textures and flavors. Give your body the chance to register a feeling of satiation and wakefulness.
Even better, sit down with the whole family. Fewer of us have time for family dinner, so why not make breakfast the bonding meal? Families who eat meals together have children with better eating habits, better grades, better mental health and more happiness. But these benefits don't have to be specific to dinner, research shows. If it's too stressful to pull off the family dinner every night, try breakfast instead. Dinner conversations are retrospective – forcing everyone to relive what already happened. Breakfast? Breakfast looks forward. It's a way to get motivated and put a positive spin on the start of your day.