People who eat a healthy breakfast -- one based on whole foods rich in nutrients and fiber, with modest amounts of protein and good fat -- are more energetic and mentally alert than those who eat poorly or not at all. They're also less likely to get diabetes or suffer high blood pressure, strokes, and heart attacks.
Your body needs to periodically recharge to function efficiently. It gets its fuel (glucose) by breaking down carbohydrates in the foods you eat; glucose then enters your bloodstream, circulating and providing your cells with energy. After you've fasted for hours overnight, eating is especially important. "Your blood sugar needs to be at a certain level. If you don't eat breakfast, your body is stuck in a low-energy state," says Eric Rimm, director of the Program in Cardiovascular Epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health. "This triggers hunger in your brain, and you seek out food."
Make Your Food Choices Count
After your body turns carbs into glucose, it produces insulin, which helps get that glucose into your cells. Problems arise when all of this happens too quickly, which is the case when you eat processed foods and refined carbs (coffee cake, bagels, doughnuts). Your body rapidly converts these carbs, causing your blood sugar to spike from the glucose rush and then plummet due to a surge of insulin -- taking your energy level down with it. Within three or four hours, you'll get the signal to eat again, and because your blood sugar is so low, it's easy to convince yourself that a chocolate doughnut would be perfect.
In contrast, the carbohydrates found in whole grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables take longer to digest. The rise they cause in your blood sugar is neither as fast nor as high, so you don't experience a crash. Instead, you get an even dose of fuel for sustained energy and willpower. By keeping your blood sugar level, certain carbs also help maintain your body's sensitivity to insulin.
Fiber is the focus of several studies linking breakfast consumption to protection from heart problems -- and it may lower cholesterol and blood pressure, two major risk factors for heart disease. You need to eat a lot of it -- about 25 grams each day -- to realize its health benefits, but most of us manage to get only about 15 grams. The right breakfast is your best chance to get enough of the good stuff in your diet. A bowl of high-fiber cereal sprinkled with fresh blueberries or strawberries gives you about 12 grams.
Protein and Fats
Protein helps you feel full longer by slowing the rate at which food moves from your stomach to your intestines. In addition, studies show that protein can suppress an appetite-inducing hormone called ghrelin. A modest amount, roughly 10 grams, is enough; you can get that much in a cup of low-fat yogurt. Foods that contain good fat also help make breakfast more satisfying, as fat brings out the flavors in certain foods, ultimately making them more enjoyable. On top of that, choosing unsaturated fats will benefit your heart; sources include avocados, nuts, flaxseeds, and fish such as salmon (the last two will give you omega-3s as well).
Eggs, the perennial breakfast staple, have gotten mixed reviews by nutrition experts in recent years. As a protein source, they're considered the "gold standard," says Kathy McManus, director of nutrition at Brigham and Women's Hospital. They contain a near perfect balance of amino acids and provide other important nutrients such as choline, which improves memory. Plus, they're quick-cooking and convenient. The downside is the cholesterol in the yolks. Although dietary cholesterol doesn't affect your blood cholesterol as much as saturated and trans fats do, it can still have a negative impact. McManus recommends limiting yourself to four whole eggs a week, but feel free to eat all the egg whites you want.
Break the Rules
You may be thinking, "All this is great, but I'm just not a breakfast person." No problem. McManus suggests remembering three things:
1. You don't have to eat the minute you roll out of bed. It's fine to wait an hour or two after waking.
2. You don't need to eat your whole meal at once. Nibble on healthy foods throughout the morning.
3. You don't have to limit yourself to traditional breakfast foods like oatmeal and eggs. A turkey sandwich on whole-grain bread with sliced avocado and cranberry relish fills all the requirements.
Whatever you choose, treating yourself to a good breakfast puts you on the right track toward eating healthy-and feeling great-all day long.
Text by Cheryl Redmond.