Breakfast: Are You Fueling for Health or Disease?
Eat a healthy breakfast. It sounds simple enough. But what exactly does that mean?
While there is no definition of the “perfect breakfast,” it makes sense that there are ideal and less than ideal ways to energize your body. So let’s compare typical breakfast options to various types of fires and ways to fuel your morning right!
The Cooking Fire
This fire is the equivalent of a stove range. It burns slowly, evenly and can literally last all day.
The breakfast equivalent? A breakfast that will keep you energized all day with stable blood sugar levels should always have lean protein as its base. Like seasoned firewood, lean protein is a slow burn fuel. It improves glycemic response, inhibits the secretion of the hunger hormone ghrelin and stimulates the secretion of the satiety hormones peptide YY (PYY), glucagonlike peptide 1 (GLP-1) and cholecystokinin (CKK) . The net effect? You feel more satisfied and have fewer food cravings, which may also help maintain a healthy body weight.
In addition to protein, some minimally processed fats, such as avocado, olive or coconut oil, not only add flavor but also further increase satiety. Carbohydrates should ideally be limited to whole food sources (fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains)—as close to their natural form as possible. Think steel cut oats, rather than instant oatmeal.
Here are some examples of slow burn breakfasts and tips to get you started.
- Make a shake. These can be as simple as powder and water in a shake cup or can be dressed up and blended with frozen fruits, dairy or alternative milks, and any number of ingredients for a flavor and nutritional boost. Ideally, select a powder with at least 15 grams of protein. (Check out Tips for Better Shakes!)
- On the go. Enjoy 8 ounces of high-protein, no-sugar-added yogurt (think Greek or Icelandic). Have 2 hard-boiled eggs and a slice of whole-wheat toast. Grab a handful of roasted soynuts and a piece of fruit. Or choose muesli with nuts and dairy or alternative milk (no cooking!).
- Plan ahead. Prep individual portions of frozen berries and greens for quick smoothies. Egg frittata: make in volume in a half-sheet pan. Breakfast burrito (egg or tofu scramble) can be made ahead, individually wrapped, frozen, then warmed in a toaster oven. Or try individual overnight oats.
The Kindling Fire
This fire burns hot and fast. It ignites quickly, then extinguishes once it has consumed its fuel: paper, leaves, etc. It’s all kindling, no logs.
Think of the typical bagel and juice breakfast as a kindling fire. The more processed, more sugar-laden your breakfast, the faster your body burns it. In the big picture of long-term health effects, within reason, any breakfast is better than no breakfast at all. True, it gives you some fast energy. But keep in mind, it may leave you hungry and needing energy by midmorning.
Do you skip breakfast? If so, you’re in good company. In fact, according to a national survey, “breaking the fast” is not on the morning agenda of 31 million American adults. How might skipping the most important meal of the day affect you? Research supports the importance of breakfast for better energy and healthier food choices throughout the day, wins for everyone. But if you fit the following criteria, you may have even more to gain from breakfast .
- You want to maintain a healthy weight
- Many people routinely skip breakfast in the belief that the missing calories will help their waistline . It doesn’t work that way.
- In contrast to skipping, those who eat breakfast regularly not only have more adequate micronutrient intakes  but also tend to have a lower body mass index, as well as report reduced hunger and food cravings throughout the day . Further, eating breakfast is associated with not only lower body weight but also maintained weight loss. This health benefit was shown in a study by the National Weight Control Registry, 3,000 people who maintained a 30-pound weight loss for at least a year. What was one common habit? Nearly 80% of them regularly ate breakfast .
- You value your exercise workout performance
According to research studies, skipping breakfast may compromise your workout at any point in the day [6,7]. So to get the most from your exercise efforts at any point in the day, consider breakfast part of your workout routine.
- You’re concerned about cardiovascular health
- Research has long shown an association between breakfast skipping and risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as obesity, hypertension, dyslipidemia, and glucose intolerance. But a 2016 study of more than 80,000 Japanese men and women showed an even more compelling argument for breakfast: The researchers studied the breakfast patterns of men and women 45-74 years of age with no history of cardiovascular disease. According to the analysis, those who skipped breakfast had significantly higher risk for total cardiovascular disease and stroke compared with those who regularly ate breakfast .
- Breakfast may also help avert atherosclerosis. Analysis of an ongoing study cohort showed that those individuals who skipped breakfast doubled their risk for generalized atherosclerosis—and their risk for subclinical atherosclerosis (considered a serious disease risk warning) increased by 75% !
- You want to maintain healthy blood sugar levels
- The very nature of “breaking the fast” helps metabolism and blood sugar, both of which are lower during the evening “fast,” return to appropriate daytime levels. So skipping breakfast may mean sluggish metabolism—as well as a brain running on empty. However, for those with blood sugar control issues, eating breakfast should be a priority. In fact, new research suggests that for individuals with type 2 diabetes, skipping breakfast may potentially disrupt blood sugar levels all day.
- In a small clinical trial, researchers found that when patients with type 2 diabetes skipped breakfast, their lunchtime blood sugar levels were 37% higher than on a baseline day with breakfast. Further, on the breakfast-skipping day, blood sugar levels remained 27% higher at dinner time .
- Given that high postprandial blood sugars are strongly associated with a rapid decline in beta-cell function, breakfast skipping should not be taken lightly. Beta cells are the pancreatic cells that produce insulin. Our bodies require insulin in order to use the carbohydrates in food as fuel. Further, insulin spikes, considered inflammatory, are also linked to earlier development of heart disease complications.
- A simple morning meal can benefit your workouts, weight, and cardiovascular health as well as stabilize blood sugar. So even when life gets in the way, don’t skip it.
What’s your excuse for skipping breakfast?
- I don’t have time.
Pressed for time? Try planning ahead: Prepare breakfast the night before or make something in bulk for the week.
- I’m not hungry in the morning.
Your body adapts to eating patterns. If you’ve trained it to not be hungry in the morning, go slowly. Start your day with a piece of fruit, a handful of nuts, a hard-boiled egg, or just a few bites. Over time, your digestive system adjusts to these sensory cues and adapts to your new pattern of eating.
- I’ll make up for it later in the day.
Eating breakfast provides an extra opportunity to consume valued but often underconsumed nutrients and food groups. For example, an orange or apple provides not only a serving of fruit but also fiber, helping you meet recommended daily quantities for both.
- National Heart Lung, and Blood Institute Obesity Education Initiative Expert Panel (1998) Clinical guidelines on the identification, evaluation, and treatment of overweight and obesity in adults: the evidence report. Obes Res. 6 (Suppl 2): 51S–210S.
- Wadden, TA, Stenberg, JA, Letizia, KA, et al. (1989) Treatment of obesity by very low-calorie diet, behavior therapy, and their combination: a five-year perspective. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 13: 39–46.
- Nicklas, TA, Myers, L, Reger, C, et al. (1998) Impact of breakfast consumption on nutritional adequacy of the diets of young adults in Bogalusa, Louisiana: ethnic and gender contrasts. J Am Diet Assoc. 98: 1432–1438.
- Cho E. Dietrich M, Brown CJP, Clark CA, et al. The effect of breakfast type on total daily energy intake and body mass index: results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III). J Am Coll Nutr 2003:22(4):296-302.
- Wyatt HR, Grunwald GK, Mosca CL, et al. Long-term weight loss and breakfast in subjects in the National Weight Control Registry. Obes Res. 2002;10(2):78-82.
- Sherman WM, Peden CM, Wright, DA. Carbohydrate feedings 1 h before improves cycling performance exercise. Am J Clin Nutr. 1991;54:866-70.
- Clayton DJ, Barutcu A, Machin C, et al. Effect of Breakfast Omission on Energy Intake and Evening Exercise Performance. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2015;47(12):2645-2652.
- Kubota Y, Iso H, Sawada N, et al. Association of Breakfast Intake With Incident Stroke and Coronary Heart Disease. Stroke. 2016;STROKEAHA.115.011350, originally published January 5, 2016.
- Uzhova I, Fuster V, Fernandez-Ortiz A, et al. The Importance of Breakfast in Atherosclerosis Disease. Journal of the American College of Cardiology Oct 2017, 70 (15) 1833-1842.
- Jakubowicz D, Wainstein J, Ahren B, et al. Fasting until noon triggers increased postprandial hyperglycemia and impaired insulin response after lunch and dinner in individuals with type 2 diabetes: a randomized clinical trial. Diabetes Care. 2015 Oct;38(10):1820-6.
- Bolster D, Rahn M, Kamil A, et al. The effects of reduced protein-nutrition bars with enhanced leucine content on ratings of fullness in healthy women. Paper presented at: American Society for Nutrition Scientific Sessions & Annual Meeting at Experimental Biology 2016; April 5, 2016; San Diego, California.