Getting the right breakfast can set you up for a day of healthy eating. But knowing what to eat for your first meal of the day can be confusing. There’s just so much conflicting information about what makes a good breakfast that it can be hard to distinguish the sound advice from the spin. In this article, I’m going to take you through what really counts when it comes to morning meals and give you my perspective on how to start your day so that you’re set up with stable energy all day long.
I’m going to give you the inside scoop on breakfast cereals; their benefits, their bad points and how to tell the best from the rest. I want to tell you a little about alternatives to cereal-based breakfasts, as well as putting forward the idea that breakfast is not the most important meal of the day (in fact, skipping breakfast might actually be a positive choice!). After you’ve read this post you’re going to have a better understanding of what a healthy breakfast looks like and why it will set you up to stay healthy and enjoy your day.
First things first, the big advantage of breakfast cereals is their convenience. You buy a box, pour yourself a bowl, add milk and breakfast is ready. But at what price does this convenience come?
Breakfast cereals are products made from processed grains, like wheat, oats and corn, and they are most often eaten with milk. Frequently, cereals have extra minerals and vitamins added as part of their processing to make them more nutritious. Besides being loaded with gluten, the most common criticism of breakfast cereals is that they often contain a substantial amount of added sugar and refined carbohydrate. This is a big problem if you want to be healthy: the more sugar you eat the more likely you are to be overweight and have heart disease.
While sugary, refined carb breakfast cereals may boast about having added nutrients, eating them first thing in the morning starts a vicious cycle that sets you up to break your good intentions of healthy eating. Eating these breakfast cereals spikes your blood sugar and insulin levels giving you energy but setting you up to crash after a few hours. When your blood sugar inevitably plummets, your body will signal that it needs instant energy making you crave another sugary meal or snack. After that, another blood sugar crash and craving are only a few hours away. This overeating of refined carbohydrates has serious health consequences in terms of Type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
Really, the optimal choice is to avoid processed breakfast cereals altogether. However, if you feel you need that convenience first thing in the morning there are several steps you can take to make your breakfast cereal healthier.
- Low sugar, high fibre: limiting the sugar content and getting more fibre means you’ll be getting fewer problems and more benefits from your cereal. Less than 5g of sugar per serving and more than 3g of fibre per serving is ideal.
- Read the ingredients and nutritional information: If sugar is listed as one of the main ingredients then you know the cereal is not in your best interests. Also, health claims made on the front of the box need to be backed up by the facts on the back.
- Add protein: even the best breakfast cereals are low in protein because they are made from grains. Adding protein in the form of nuts, seeds or Greek yogurt to your cereal will keep you feeling fuller for longer. Mixing a whey protein supplement with your milk is a great way to boost the nutritional content of your breakfast.
The bottom line is that breakfast cereals are a mediocre breakfast choice at best, even if they have lower sugar and plenty of fibre. The price of convenience is definitely nutrition, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t convenient breakfasts that have serious nutritional credentials.
If I could only eat one food for breakfast for the rest of my life I would not hesitate for a second in choosing eggs. Eggs are incredibly nutritionally dense, require only minimal preparation and are totally delicious. Any of the scaremongering about eggs, cholesterol and heart disease is just that: scaremongering based on misinterpretation and bad information. There is good research showing that eating a moderate amount of eggs (1-3 eggs every day) increases good cholesterol and decreases triglycerides.
Eggs are rich in high-quality protein, good fats, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. On average, one large hard-boiled egg contains 77 Calories, 6g of protein and 5g of fat, that means several eggs for breakfast will keep you well nourished and feeling full for hours. Most of the goodness (selenium, B vitamins, choline, vitamin E, zinc . . .) of eggs is in the yolk, so if you plan on doing yourself the favour of eating eggs for breakfast, make sure you eat them whole. But be careful, not all eggs are the same. Eggs from chickens with access to pasture (Free Range Eggs) are much more nutritious than eggs from battery-raised chickens.
I like to alternate how I cook my eggs so I never get bored with them. Fried and scrambled are my favourites but I also eat them boiled (easy to prepare the night before) or in omelettes with green vegetables and smoked salmon for a luxurious but healthy weekend treat.
While oats technically are a cereal often eaten for breakfast, they are not thought of as a breakfast cereal in the same way that Cocopops are. Because of this, and their nutritional content, I think they deserve some special attention. Oats are rich in high-quality carbohydrate and low in fat while having more protein than most grains (around 17% protein). While oats are not as good as eggs for people trying to lose fat or gain muscle, oatmeal still makes a satisfying and healthy breakfast with plenty of high-quality nutrition.
The carbohydrate in oats is either starch or fibre – oats have almost no sugar. The starch in oats is digested slowly and so provides sustained energy and keeps blood sugar stable. The fibre in oats also contributes to slow digestion keeping you feeling full and combating hunger for longer. Beta-glucans, a type of fibre in oats, can lower cholesterol as well as moderating blood sugar and insulin levels after carbohydrate consumption. The big benefit of oats is definitely on satiety. In one study, cooked oatmeal (porridge) was found to be the third most effective food for keeping hunger at bay. In fact, it was the most effective breakfast food.
I don’t often eat oatmeal for breakfast. However, if I know I’m going to be doing some sustained physical activity later in the day, like a hike, sailing or rock climbing, I make sure to eat some oats before I get going. Porridge cooks quickly in the microwave or can be prepared the night before so it’s just as convenient as less healthy processed cereals.
Best of the Rest
If you want to avoid sugary cereals that lack nutrition, but oats and eggs aren’t your thing, there are still plenty of great options for healthy breakfasts. On the rare occasion when I have a breakfast that includes neither oats nor eggs I’ll eat some combination of Greek yogurt, fruit and nuts all mixed up in a big bowl. The beauty of this kind of breakfast is that it contains plenty of protein from the Greek yogurt while still allowing variation through different combinations of fruits, berries and nuts. As well as being nutritionally solid these types of “breakfast bowls” couldn’t be easier to prepare, just add fruit, nuts and a few berries to a bowl of Greek yogurt!
If you want another option for a healthy breakfast, try the pancake recipe in this article.
The Most Important Meal of the Day?
If you find that you’re rarely hungry in the morning or that breakfast is a chore that you’d rather do without, maybe no breakfast is the healthiest breakfast for you. While people who tend to eat breakfast tend to have healthier habits there is nothing inherently healthy about eating a meal first thing in the morning.
The idea that skipping breakfast will sabotage your day and cause you to gain weight is a myth. There might even be some health benefits to skipping breakfast. As part of a well planned and nutritionally balanced intermittent fasting protocol, skipping breakfast could help you lose weight and improve your metabolic health. Intermittent fasting means deliberately restricting the times when you consume food, most often by continuing your overnight fast until lunch time. I have used intermittent fasting successfully to lose body fat and free up time in the morning. It’s not for everyone though, if you try it and don’t feel good one of the healthy breakfast options above might be what you need.
By now you should have a better idea of how to eat a healthy breakfast that suits your needs. Whether you eat eggs, oatmeal, yogurt “breakfast bowls” or some combination of the three you should be trying to get the protein and fat that your body needs for growth and repair. The more vitamins and minerals you can get the better! While they are convenient, and may contain added vitamins and minerals, breakfast cereals don’t come close to the nutritional benefit of whole food breakfasts like eggs or oats, so the best breakfast cereal might not be a cereal at all!
Leave a comment and tell me your favorite healthy breakfast and if you learnt something new from this post why not share it with a friend who cares about their health.