Breakfast: the most important meal of the day. Many people know that already, but what they don't know is that eating the wrong type of breakfast isn't much better than eating no breakfast at all. So what constitutes the right breakfast? Cereal and toast? Oatmeal with fruit? Eggs and bacon? Or something else entirely?
To help put you on the right path to a great day of healthful eating, we spoke to Emily Bender, certified nutrition consultant, author, and member of the faculty of the Hawthorn Health and Nutrition Institute, who shattered some of the myths we've been taught about breakfast and told us not just what to eat for breakfast, but why to eat it.
Here's some good news to get you excited about eating a high-quality breakfast: Nutritional studies have shown that people who eat breakfast live longer and are less likely to be overweight. Children who eat breakfast do better in school, and a good breakfast helps people function properly throughout the day. This comes down to a simple matter of fuel. "The idea is to keep your metabolism constantly going," says Bender. "By skipping breakfast you make your metabolism run on reserves or adrenaline." Ideally, you should pace your fuel supply throughout the day, so that you burn what you consume.
Pick the Right Breakfast Fuel
That said, the type of fuel you use really matters. Bender says that many people have a cultural conception of what's acceptable as breakfast food, and it's not necessarily a helpful one. "When I talk to clients, I want them to rethink their concept of what we think we're 'allowed' to eat for breakfast. Americans tend to eat a cross between a continental bread-and-butter breakfast and an English breakfast with eggs. But really, we should think of balancing protein, whole-grain carbs, and some fat, rather than focusing on particular things that we deem to be 'breakfast' foods."
As great as they taste with your morning coffee, many traditional breakfast foods tend to be loaded with unhealthy carbohydrates. Toast, cereal, bagels, pastries—all of these will leave you hungry a couple of hours later if you don't balance the carbs with protein and moderate amounts of fat. And that often leads to further poor food choices.
"You didn't plan to be hungry at 10am," Bender says. "So that's when you go eat whatever's sitting around the office—a doughnut, or the candy on your neighbor's desk."
Here's a nutritional recommendation General Mills doesn't want you to know about: In general, stay away from boxed cereals, which are processed at high heats, killing the nutrients in their raw materials. "Any nutrients in those cereals," she points out, "were sprayed on after the fact."
Again, the notion is balance, with an emphasis on getting protein, carbohydrates, and some fat into a single meal—recognizing that you have limited time in the morning. Below, some of Bender's suggestions for getting that great blend of carbs, protein, and fats, some of which might surprise you:
Make Dinner Into Breakfast
Reheat some leftovers from last night's dinner. "[Leftovers are] convenient, since [they are] already cooked—and most people don't want to get up and cook," Bender says. So, a lamb chop and vegetables with a little brown rice will make a great breakfast. Surprised? Bender herself had had a smoothie and a leg of duck for breakfast when we spoke with her. And when this reporter mentioned a long-hidden dirty secret of frequently starting the day with a plate of leftover tacos, Bender exclaimed, "I love tacos for breakfast!" In your fridge, you have the makings of a good breakfast—it's just been masquerading as a well-balanced dinner.
Have a Smoothie
Smoothies are easy to make, delicious, and can be tweaked for nutritional balance. Bender's own breakfast smoothie consists of plain yoghurt (the whole fat variety—don't be afraid of healthy natural fats), frozen blueberries and cherries, bananas, coconut oil (which is readily burned for energy), and cinnamon, which helps to balance blood sugar and is a powerful anti-oxidant. If you don't happen to have a duck leg to eat with this, you may want to add protein powder—but Bender says to be careful to choose a high-quality, minimally processed protein.
Soup In the Morning?
Vegetable soup makes a great winter breakfast, and is easier to make than you'd think. Just put a pot of meat stock on the stove with vegetables in it, and simmer until the veggies are soft. Then puree the mixture in a blender, and eat it hot. That will get you a great dose of high-quality carbohydrates; balance it with protein by putting some sour cream on top, sprinkling pumpkin seeds on it, or having a couple of pieces of cheese on the side.
Go Traditional with Oatmeal
If you love your breakfast foods, don't despair. You really should give up the heavily processed cereals, but you can still have oatmeal, which provides a high-quality dose of carbohydrates to fuel your day and also has been shown to lower cholesterol and reduce the incidence of heart disease. Your best-case scenario, Bender says, is to buy uncooked oats and soak them overnight in yoghurt mixed with a little water. The acid in the yoghurt helps break down the oats, and makes their minerals more easily absorbed by the body. And, it will speed up the cooking, so that in the morning you'll only need to cook the oats for a minute or so. Add milk for protein, and cinnamon, vanilla, and raisins. Good times!
Pass the Oxidation-Free Eggs, Please
What about eggs, which provide a great dose of muscle-building protein, nutrients, and fat? For a long time the nutrition community just said no to eggs, but they're back on the menu now. "Eggs were thought to be bad because they have cholesterol," Bender says, "but your body produces cholesterol anyway."
While some people have a genetic condition that prevents their liver from processing ingested cholesterol, people without this condition have nothing to fear from the cholesterol in the occasional egg yolk. Most important, Bender says, eggs contain a slew of important vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients.
It's important to note that while egg whites provide a good protein source, the yolk contains almost all of the nutrients. Bender suggests you skip those packaged egg whites, and, whenever possible, try to buy pasture-raised eggs. A simple comparison of yolks will explain why: "The yolks of the pasture-raised [eggs] are a completely different color—really rich and yellow, bright and flavorful," Bender says. They're not only better for you, they also taste much better.
How you prepare an egg is also enormously important. When you break an egg yolk and/or expose it to heat, the cholesterol in the yolk oxidizes. And oxidized cholesterol is not good for you. Bender recommends you either hard or soft-boil your eggs, or, best of all, poach them and put them on whole-grain toast. Over-easy also works well, but to avoid oxidation, make sure the yolk doesn't break and stays runny.
Big Meaty Treats. Bacon and Sausage in Moderation
Finally, bacon and sausages. You should never eat them, right? Wrong. Bender endorses both, in moderation, so long as they're good quality. Meats provide a good source of morning protein and contain all of the essential amino acids. Bender recommends Applegate Farms and Niman Ranch brands because they contain no nitrates and no additives. For bacon, go nitrite free, organic, and uncured. Sausages should contain no ingredients that you can't pronounce or wouldn't be able to find in a standard well-stocked kitchen.
"Your meats should be as close to their whole form as possible," says Bender. "No binders, no additives." And, of course, you need to balance the protein and fat of the bacon or sausage with healthy carbohydrates. Back to the smoothie!
End Note: Think Ahead
The key to a good breakfast, in the end, is a little bit of planning. If you plan your breakfasts in advance, you'll be much less likely to end up gobbling a doughnut and a coffee in your car on the way to work. Stock your kitchen with good foods; plan on blending protein, carbohydrates, and fats; and spend just a few minutes the night before soaking some oatmeal, or making a protein source like a chicken breast or salmon filet. Getting the routine may take some effort—but it's worth it for the extra energy you'll be able to pour into your work or your workout.