The Importance of Breakfast
Did your mom always say that breakfast was the most important meal of the day? Turns out she was right. More and more researchers who study the morning meal are finding that breakfast plays a key role in healthy living. And yet many people sacrifice it in their rush to get out the door. "The average American skips breakfast," says Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE, CDN, registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and author of The African American Guide to Living Well With Diabetes. "You're skipping breakfast and oftentimes you skip lunch as well, so by the time you do eat, you're ravenous and overeat." That's not a good idea for a number of reasons, as researchers have come to understand.
As its name implies, the purpose of breakfast is to break the fast between dinner and lunch. Here's what happens when you don't eat a morning meal: Your body enters into a prolonged fasting state. It starts to believe that you won't be eating any time soon. When you finally eat lunch, your body stores it as fat because it thinks, "I'd better save this for later. I don't know when the next meal will come." That, of course, leads to weight gain. When you break the fast in the morning, on the other hand, your body can use that food to power you through the day.
Aside from kicking your body into gear and keeping hunger at bay, why should you bother with breakfast? "The research shows that, without a doubt, students do better in school with breakfast," says Brown-Riggs. "It helps in terms of fitness." It affects the mind, too: Breakfast eaters are more productive at work, have better problem-solving skills, and increased mental clarity.
Not only that, but people who eat breakfast tend to have a healthier diet overall. "We know, when we look at the characteristics of individuals who are breakfast skippers, that they get inadequate amounts of fruits and vegetables," says Heather Leidy, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology at the University of Missouri. "They are deficient in calcium and other minerals." On average, breakfast skippers snack more often, eat more sugary, high-fat snacks, drink more soda, are more likely to overeat at night, and are more often overweight or obese than breakfast eaters. It's important to note, though, that these findings so far have only demonstrated that there is some kind of link between missing breakfast and these other factors. "That's all well and good, but it doesn't prove causality," says Leidy. The big mystery is whether overweight or obese people skip breakfast in an effort to lose weight or if the act of skipping breakfast leads to obesity.
Either way, breakfast is especially important for people with diabetes. For someone on insulin, if there's no food on board, that person runs the risk of hypoglycemia. Even if you use fast-acting insulin to cover carbs, you shouldn't avoid breakfast. "What we know from research is that there's much better glycemic control when a person's carbohydrates are spread out," says Brown-Riggs.
As important as eating in the morning is, you might be doing more harm than good if you pick the wrong foods. A recent study in Nutrition Journal found that a hearty breakfast didn't lessen the amount of food participants ate throughout the day. People who ate big breakfasts (think a tower of pancakes or a cheesy omelet with hash browns and sausage) ate more calories throughout the day than people who ate a smaller breakfast. Whether you're looking to lose weight or just maintain blood glucose control, eating the right breakfast foods is key.
"In our society, breakfast foods are not healthy, especially fast foods," says Leidy. Favorites like pancakes, waffles, and French toast are high in carbohydrates and topped with fat and sugar. Other common picks, like sausage, bacon, and eggs loaded with cheese, are high in fat and sodium.
"We're not advocating eating [just] any breakfast," says Leidy. "Eat a [healthier] breakfast." The best breakfasts are low in carbs and fat, and high in protein and fiber. Ideally, you should get between 7 and 10 grams of fiber at breakfast, which will fill you up. (The recommended daily fiber intake is 25 grams for women and 38 grams for men, though most people don't hit that mark.)
"Breakfast that has protein added in it is what creates that satiety and prevents snacking later on," says Brown-Riggs. In a study conducted by Leidy, participants ate either a high-carb, high-sugar breakfast of cereal and milk or a high-protein, low-saturated-fat, low-sodium breakfast of egg whites. At the end of the study, people who ate the cereal felt less full after the meal and reported being hungrier in the afternoon compared with the egg eaters. Plus, says Leidy, "with a high-protein breakfast, you're not going to get a huge spike in blood glucose."
As for size, smaller is better. A typical diner breakfast has upwards of 1,000 calories. Instead, you should shoot for around 400 or 500 calories.
Putting It Together
Most people have the same gripe when it comes to breakfast: There's no time in the morning. It seems easier to grab a cereal bar or some delicious-looking pastry that's calling your name as you wait in line at Starbucks. Truth is, breakfast doesn't have to be complicated. "It doesn't have to be a sit-down meal," says Leidy. Sure, an egg white omelet loaded with veggies may be a nice treat on the weekends, but there are also simple and fast breakfasts that you can easily eat on the go.
If you plan ahead, breakfast may be simply a matter of microwaving food before you leave the house—or, if you're really pressed for time, microwaving your breakfast at work. Try prepping oatmeal the night before. In the morning, you can just add water or low-fat milk and heat. A tasty alternative to the same old oatmeal is to top it with fruit and grated cheese, says Brown-Riggs.
Other make-ahead ideas: Add protein to your pancakes (Leidy used whey protein powder for a study, and participants were none the wiser), then freeze the pancakes in small plastic bags or plastic wrap. In the morning, toast the frozen pancakes and top with sugar-free syrup, low-fat or nonfat plain yogurt and fruit, peanut or almond butter, or unsweetened applesauce. Instead of bacon or sausage (both of which are high in fat and sodium), pick lean ham or turkey. Have a toasted English muffin with ham and vegetable juice; a whole-wheat wrap spread with Greek-style yogurt and layered with fruit; or a low-carb bagel topped with egg whites and a slice of turkey. Each has a good mix of protein, carbs, and fiber. "Those are all good, easy, quick breakfasts," says Brown-Riggs.
Or reheat last night's leftovers. "It doesn't have to be a breakfast food. It's our culture to eat those foods," says Brown-Riggs. But any healthy food can be a good choice. Try leftover rice with beans, peppers, and cilantro with a side of milk or vegetable juice. Vegetable soup is a warming eat-at-your-desk option, as is pasta with chicken and veggies.
If you don't already eat breakfast, "start off slow," says Brown-Riggs. "Don't start trying to have a big breakfast. It may be starting with a slice of toast for a week and eating more gradually." Spend time figuring out which foods fill you up and which leave you hungry an hour later. Also important: monitoring your blood glucose to see how different meals affect you in the morning. For some people, oatmeal is the perfect quick breakfast. For others, it causes blood glucose spikes. Soon you'll figure out how to eat to stay full, keep your blood glucose in range—and have plenty of energy throughout the day.