Breakfast has long been called the most important meal of the day. However, it is also the most commonly skipped meal of the day. Mornings can be hectic with getting ready for work, packing lunches, and dropping kids off at school or a sitters house. It’s just easier to skip breakfast and save yourself those extra 20 minutes. However, when it comes to taking care of your health, time-saving measures aren’t always the answer. Foods that can be made quickly often deliver high-calories, low nutritional value, and blood sugar spikes.
While breakfast is the most important meal, not just any breakfast will do. As with any food choices, quality counts. All it takes is a perusal of the breakfast menu at your local diner to see which foods we value most. Items like bagels with jam, biscuits and gravy, hashbrowns, cinnamon rolls, breakfast burritos, pancakes, and waffles often dominate the menu. Not to mention the usual addition of orange juice, sugar packets, salt, flavored creamer, and maple syrup to top it all off. A person can easily create a blood sugar nightmare in this situation, along with robbing themselves of the nutrients they need to focus throughout the day. Let’s take a look at why breakfast is so important and what a healthy breakfast consists of.
Studies have long shown that eating the right breakfast has multiple benefits. In the short-term, it provides sustained energy and mental performance throughout the day. Over the long-term, a healthy breakfast helps with weight management and decreases your risk of type 2 diabetes and various cardiovascular diseases, including heart disease.
In addition, those who eat a healthy breakfast statistically consume less fat throughout the day and have higher daily intakes of calcium and fiber. They are less likely to feel “snacky” and more likely to meet daily recommendations for fruit and vegetable consumption. Overall, those who eat a balanced breakfast tend to make better food choices throughout the day.
Breakfast is the meal where you are literally breaking your fast. After 8-9 hours of sleep and around 10-12 hours since the last meal, your body is in need of steady glucose to replenish depleted energy stores. Glucose is what our body cells use to give us energy, which translates into alertness, staying awake, improved reaction time, and clearer thinking. Glucose is found in the carbohydrates we eat, although carbohydrates are not created equal.
Refined carbs, such as waffles, pancakes, white bagels, and most breakfast cereals, flood your bloodstream with glucose, causing harmful blood sugar spikes and crashes. This leads to the mid-morning reach for quick and easy snack foods in an attempt to satiate your quickly returning hunger. Complex carbs, on the other hand, provide a steady release of glucose over the span of several hours, satiating you until lunchtime. A slow release of glucose provides the sustained energy you need throughout the day. Examples of complex carbs include whole-grain hot cereal, nut butter, multi-grain bread, whole fruit, and vegetables.
Be sure to eat breakfast within 2 hours of waking up to prevent increasing hunger. You don’t want to get to the point where you grab unhealthy snacks to quickly alleviate hunger pangs.
Glucose is our bodies’ energy source, not only for our muscles but also for our brain. Adults need about 200 grams of glucose per day for healthy functioning, and two-thirds of that (about 130 grams) is sent to our brain to meet its energy needs. That’s a lot of glucose! In fact, unlike our muscles and liver, our brain cannot store glucose for later, meaning it requires a continuous supply every day. And our brain function takes priority: in times of starvation, it is programmed to limit glucose for the rest of the body making it more available for its own needs.
Energy from glucose is used to transmit nerve signals, maintain neuron health, and produce neurotransmitters (like dopamine and epinephrine). Glucose is necessary for cognitive functioning, particularly in memory and attention. Unsurprisingly, challenging mental tasks require more glucose than simpler, rote tasks. Studies show that skipping breakfast affects concentration and memory, making some tasks feel harder than usual. This is especially true for school children, who perform poorly in attention-related tasks when they don’t eat breakfast.
Eating a healthy breakfast will provide several nutrients that aren’t found in highly processed, sugary breakfasts. In fact, breakfast-eaters are more likely to meet the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals than those who skip breakfast.
- Fiber: Healthy breakfasts usually include whole grains and fresh fruit, both of these are rich in fiber. Breakfast smoothies with fresh greens and chia seeds will increase your fiber count even further.
- Protein: This is commonly seen at the breakfast table. Eggs, yogurt, oatmeal, nut butter, and breakfast meats are all good sources of protein. From a breakfast perspective, protein helps keep you satiated for longer, preventing you from overeating or reaching for unhealthy snacks mid-day.
- Calcium: This mineral is easily gotten through a balanced breakfast. Calcium is found in yogurt, cow milk, nut milks, green leafy vegetables like spinach, and in oranges, kiwis, and blackberries. These common breakfast foods make it easy to get calcium into your diet.
- B Vitamins: Just about everything in a healthy breakfast contains B vitamins. There are eight B vitamins that we get from our diet (common examples are folate, B12, and thiamin). These vitamins are found in varying amounts in whole grains, meat, eggs, dairy products, seeds and nuts, leafy greens, and fruit.
Blood Sugar Balance:
As mentioned earlier, the importance of breakfast lies in the quality of the foods you eat. Eating processed and refined carbohydrates will spike your blood sugar. This will strain your pancreas in its attempt to keep up with the higher demand for insulin. Continuing this cycle over time will increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, obesity, and high blood pressure. These conditions, in turn, can all increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases like heart disease.
Of course, poor quality foods can be eaten at any time of day but, as discussed earlier, skipping breakfast or eating a processed breakfast will create a cycle of hunger and blood sugar dips throughout the day. People can experience dizziness, brain fog, fatigue, and headaches, and tend to reach for sugary foods to quickly rebound them. This is the dangerous rut many people find themselves in and is the cause of high blood sugar issues. Eating a wholesome breakfast stabilizes your blood sugar and quells hunger. Furthermore, those who eat a good breakfast tend to have healthier diets overall.
Healthy Breakfast Choices
By now you might have a good idea of what constitutes a healthy breakfast. Here are some further ideas:
- Whole-grain hot cereal such as muesli, oats, or buckwheat
- Nut butter and sliced banana on toasted multi-grain or sprouted bread
- Whole fruit and raw nuts and seeds (great toppings for yogurt or hot cereal)
- Egg omelet with spinach, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, mushrooms, or any combination of these
- Plain yogurt with whole fruit as a topping
- Smoothie with leafy greens, frozen fruit, chia seeds, protein powder, and yogurt or canned coconut milk (for thickness)
- Avocado toast. Add a fried egg on top for extra yumminess!
- Organic breakfast meat that’s free of nitrates and nitrites
- Granola blends as an alternative to cereal
- Whole-grain pancakes as an occasional treat. Top with honey, fresh fruit preserves, whole berries, or pure organic maple syrup with no additives
If you’re short on time in the morning, plan ahead the night before and prepare overnight oats, baked egg muffins, or a smoothie. Better yet, get in the habit of setting your alarm 15-20 minutes earlier to give you time to eat breakfast without being rushed. Pack healthy snacks to keep at work such as nuts, granola, fresh fruit, vegetables and hummus, or a simple energy bar that has whole-food ingredients (I like the brand Lara Bar).
The power of eating a healthy breakfast cannot be understated. It provides essential nutrients and balanced blood sugar, as well as boosting energy, memory, and focus. Furthermore, wholesome breakfasts protect against type 2 diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases (they also help treat these conditions as well). The best time to take care of our health was yesterday but it’s never too late to start today. Childhood breakfast habits of cartoon cereal, pop tarts, and Lego my Eggo have set us up for poor eating habits in adulthood. Let’s break the sugar cycle, climb out of the processed food rut, and choose to start our day with the nutrition we need.