Breakfast: some people swear by a hearty morning meal, while others want nothing more than a cup of black coffee after waking up.
The first meal of the day can be an important part of a healthy diet, but it’s also a time when your growling stomach can convince you to indulge in a meal that’s too heavy on sugary, fatty foods. As you work to improve your overall fitness, breakfast can be an opportunity to make some healthy swaps and start your days out on the right foot.
Is Breakfast Really “The Most Important Meal of the Day?”
This has been the traditional refrain about breakfast, and there’s certainly research that indicates that breakfast can play a key role in health. The right breakfast can jump-start your metabolism for the day and keep you full to avoid mid-morning snacking. Many studies have shown that people who eat breakfast are healthier than those who skip it.
One study on how eating times relate to health “verifies the importance of meal timing” and indicates that people who eat breakfast generally have lower BMI and fewer metabolic issues. This may be because the body processes calories more efficiently in the morning, and people who skip breakfast may eat more in the evening.
Another recent piece of research confirmed a link between skipping breakfast and poor cardiovascular health outcomes. Studies like this indicate that even if you feel fine skipping breakfast, you may still face health risks later in life.
Are there any benefits to not eating breakfast?
Although most studies have found that eating breakfast is linked to better health outcomes, it’s not clear whether eating breakfast itself causes those health benefits or whether it’s a marker for other factors. It’s possible that people who regularly skip breakfast live unhealthier lives.
Some people believe that skipping breakfast can actually improve their health. “Intermittent fasting” is the practice of only eating within a certain window during the day (for instance, 12 noon to 10PM). By intentionally skipping breakfast and eating only a bit more than you otherwise would during the day, it’s possible to end up cutting overall calories.
So what are the difficulties with intentionally skipping breakfast? For it to work, you’ll need to avoid hunger and lack of energy, which can lead you to search out unhealthy snacks during the rest of the day. If you feel constantly hungry and unhappy, you’re not going to stick with your eating plan long term. The hungrier you feel, the more likely you are to grab whatever unhealthy snacks are around – which can actually lead you to eat more calories than you would if you just had breakfast! Intermittent fasting combined with large meals can also cause health problems for people on certain medications or with certain health conditions.
If you do decide you’d rather skip breakfast, make sure that you carefully track the rest of your day to make sure you’re eating healthy. It’s usually easier to find a healthy, filling, low-calorie breakfast option that can give you the morning energy you need as well as tide you over until your next meal.
A Healthy Breakfast Matters
It’s not enough to just eat breakfast and assume that it will lead to better health. Your choices at breakfast mean the difference between an energetic day and a sugar crash, and have a big impact on your overall health.
A healthy breakfast has many benefits:
- You’ll have more energy throughout the morning, and your energy levels will be more steady
- You’ll stay comfortably full until lunch
- Fiber and healthy fats at breakfast can improve your digestion
Poor choices at breakfast can lead to:
- Sugar highs and crashes
- Mid-morning cravings and unhealthy snacking
- An upset stomach
You can make your breakfast more filling and healthier by making a few conscious choices:
Whole grain cereals and breads are less processed, and generally contain more fiber than non-whole grain options. It’s important to note that “whole grain” has become a buzz word, and doesn’t necessarily mean something is healthy. The calorie content for whole grain bread and white bread is often basically the same, but whole grain options usually are more filling and have more nutrients.
Adding healthy protein to your breakfast helps your body recover from yesterday’s walk, while helping your stomach feel more full. Protein takes longer for your stomach to digest than simple carbs, which can tide you over longer and help avoid cravings in the morning.
The humble egg is a wonderful addition to a healthy breakfast. You can make eggs in a variety of different ways and flavor them in a million ways with some low-calorie sauce or seasoning. Hard-boiled eggs are a great make-head option, as you can easily grab them and eat them even on the go. Do remember that cooking oil is very calorie dense, so try to use less when cooking eggs if possible.
Some breakfast proteins like bacon and sausages can be loaded with salt and preservatives, so try to eat these sparingly. Many fast-food breakfast options are greasy and loaded with fat, so be aware of your protein choices.
A Better Breakfast
Traditional breakfast foods include a lot of less-than-ideal choices, and for good reason. When more people had manual labor jobs like farming, they genuinely needed calories and fat at breakfast to fuel them for a grueling work day.
But in modern times, even if you lead an active lifestyle, you can fuel your day with healthier options. In general, keeping the sugar content of your breakfast low is a good strategy, while increasing the fiber, protein, and healthy fats in your breakfast gives you the nutritional boost you need.
Here are some ideas for swapping out problematic breakfast foods with healthier (but still enjoyable) alternatives.
What’s not to love about doughnuts? These fried sugar bombs are a favorite breakfast food, but they don’t offer much except for an eventual sugar crash. For a heart-healthy option that still provides a sweet kick, try a bowl of oatmeal sweetened with fruit and a touch of real maple syrup. Or top whole wheat toast with butter and a bit of honey.
Muffins & Pastries:
Why are muffins a staple breakfast food, but cupcakes are served for dessert? Check the calorie count and ingredient list on muffins and cupcakes – they’re often almost the same thing! Try looking for low-calorie muffin or pancake recipes online that you can make yourself. If you’re eating out, base your breakfast around proteins and whole grains, with baked goods as a small side or occasional treat.
Pancakes & Waffles:
Waffles and pancakes are also usually basically a dessert in breakfast form. When making your own breakfast, there are some great flourless pancake recipes that use oats and mashed bananas instead of flour and sugar. If you’re eating out, try for a small side dish of pancakes rather than the gigantic loaded stack. Avoid high-calorie toppings like whipped cream, butter & syrup or ask for a bit on the side.
Blended Coffee Drinks & Lattes:
With tempting blended drinks available at coffee shops everywhere, you may be adding unnecessary calories to your breakfast without even realizing it. Your “coffee” could be over 500 calories, especially if you’re adding whipped cream! Flavored lattes and other specialty drinks are also filled with sugar syrup and calories from milk. Those drinks are great as an occasional treat, but stick to plain coffee for your daily caffeine fix to cut back on sugar and fat. Black coffee is essentially calorie free. It may take a little while to get used to black (or lightly sweetened) coffee, but coffee lovers swear by it! You’ll also save a bit of money (and ordering verbiage) on simple coffee drinks, so your wallet will thank you.
Many fruit juices are packed with added sugar, but fruit juice itself is naturally very sweet. Juicing is a current health fad, but some nutritionists advise that too much juice — even “healthier” options like green juice — can overload your breakfast with sugar without adding any fiber. Swapping juice for water is probably the best choice – you can add some cut fruit to give it some great fruit flavor. You can also try making homemade (moderately sized) fruit smoothies. Make sure your smoothie doesn’t have any added sugar or juice concentrates: try whole fruit blended with yogurt or milk, and amp up the nutritional benefits with flax, chia seeds, or nut butter. Remember that all of those extra ingredients (especially milk & nut butter) have calories in themselves, so when in doubt just go with fruit!
Fast food is convenient and easy to grab, but a greasy egg sandwich is not usually the best choice for a healthy breakfast. Try a homemade alternative — whole grain toast, scrambled eggs, sauteed spinach, and a sprinkle of cheese. If you do need to get food on the go, most fast food restaurants have healthier options available. Avoid fried foods when possible, and check posted calorie counts for the least bad options. Again, black coffee, tea or water are the best low-calorie drink options.
You may have grown up eating a bowl of sweet, crunchy cereal every morning, but now that you’re grown you can find a better option. Look for choices in the cereal aisle that have less sugar and more fiber. They’ll help you feel more full, and are generally more nutritious. You can also make your own granola and control exactly what goes in it. Top your homemade goodness with yogurt and berries for a complete breakfast. Many “boring” cereals can be made into tasty treats by adding cut fruit or other healthy treats.
While it may take a few more minutes to prepare a healthy breakfast, it’s worth it for the health benefits and energy boost that a well-balanced breakfast can give you. If you plan out your meals and keep healthy ingredients on hand, you can get into the routine of eating a great breakfast every morning. And even if you need to eat on the go, more restaurants offer healthier options for breakfast.