We have all heard the mantra that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It jump-starts your metabolism and fuels your body for the day ahead. Then why do so few of us eat a healthy breakfast? The most common excuses that I hear are ‘I don’t have enough time’, and ‘Im never hungry in the morning’. If you are one of those people who don’t eat anything in the morning (and by that I mean within 30-45min after awakening), then your challenge is simple: eat something when you wake up. Set your alarm ten minutes earlier and eat or pack a portable breakfast to eat while commuting to work/school. For those of you who are not hungry in the morning, I suggest you look at your eating pattern at night. Stop eating 2-3 hours before bedtime and I can practically guarantee that you will be hungrier in the morning. Think of it this way: food is energy. Remember chemistry class? A calorie is literally the unit of energy required to heat 1 gram of water by 1 degree (C) so it makes sense that you need more calories (energy) before the start of a whole new day than before sleeping for eight hours. Eliminating nighttime eating is difficult for many, I know. If you weigh within a healthy range and are hungry for breakfast in the morning, then a late-night snack may be appropriate for you. But most late night eating is in the form of unhealthy snacking – either mindless munching while watching television or eating as a ‘reward’ for getting thru another stressful day. Neither reason for eating is healthy and will undermine your fitness goals. Just a quick thought about those people who delay dinner until eight or even nine at night because of long work days/other activities. This meal should be small – only about 20% of your total calories (240cal for a 2200cal day) and should comprise healthy choices such as soap and salad, grilled chicken and vegetables or other vegetable/protein combination. Your goal should be to eat enough to not awaken at 2am with a growling stomach, but not so much that you are still full in the morning.
By not eating late at night and setting the alarm ten minutes earlier every morning you are now ready and hungry for breakfast. While its true that eating anything is better than nothing, your goal should be a filling, nutritious breakfast. Aim for a combination of protein, healthy fat and a fruit/vegetable serving. Breakfast is also the perfect time to eat some complex carbohydrates as a source of quick energy. A typical breakfast of vegetable omlette of sauted spinach, red pepper, and diced zucchini with strawberries and a piece of whole wheat toast is a great example. For those who like cereal be sure to pick one that is high in fiber and protein without a lot of added sugar or mix Fiber One or similar cereal with less nutritious ones to boost your protein/fiber intake. Eat with lowfat milk, 1/2cup blueberries and a glass of 100% whole orange juice for a complete meal. For hot cereal – oatmeal is the most versatile. Always cook plain ‘old fashioned’ oatmeal – never the sugary, overprocessed, quick cooking type. Add spices before cooking such as cinnamon or nutmeg. Add fruit (apples, peaches, blueberries, raspberries etc), nuts (peanut butter, almonds, walnuts), a little sweetener such as honey or molasses and a splash of milk. Some people like to mix oatmeal with yogurt and eat it cold or add additives such as flaxseed or a scoop of protein powder. The possibilities are endless so be creative.
For those who need a quick and portable breakfast – avoid all breakfast pastries, donuts, frappachinos etc. Sounds obvious, but companies are getting clever and trying to sell junk food as nutritious. Fiber One toaster pastries are still loaded in sugar and even if they do have 4 grams of protein – they are still not a good choice. In general, avoid packaged foods, even nutrition bars. A better choice is to take a whole wheat/high protein tortilla, spread it with natural peanut butter, drizzle it with honey and wrap it around a whole peeled banana. This can be made and refridgerated the day before or frozen for weeks ahead of eating. It contains protein, healthy fat, complex carbohydrates and a serving of fruit. Eat with a glass of milk and you have a perfectly healthy, portable breakfast. If all else fails, grab a milk based meal replacement drink such as Slim-Fast/Ensure etc. Boost for example has 240cal and 15g of protein. While low in fiber, adding an apple or other piece of fruit would help complete the meal.
In summary, everyone needs to eat breakfast for optimal health. If you are not, list the reasons/excuses and find a solution. Anything you eat in the morning is better than nothing. Then once you are consistently eating breakfast, determine the meal’s nutritional value. To have maximal sustained energy and focus in the morning, avoid processed, high sugar, low fiber food. Instead aim for protein/complex carbohydrate and a fruit/vegetable serving. Remember, healthy habits in the morning help to ensure healthier choices for the rest of the day.
Jessica Paxson, MD