How much truth is there to the saying, “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day”? The most commonly held belief about breakfast is that it can promote weight loss by preventing overeating later in the day. Recently, however, research is questioning this assumption and showing that eating breakfast may not be the key to losing weight, after all. But even though the jury’s still out on breakfast and weight loss, other studies show that eating breakfast regularly can enhance alertness and concentration, stabilize blood sugar throughout the day, and improve your heart health.
The most common reason I hear from people who don’t eat breakfast is, “I’m just not hungry.” Let’s look at why that might be true. The first meal of the day is literally the meal that “breaks” your overnight fast. While you sleep, your body uses less energy than when you’re awake and active. To get you started again in the morning, your adrenal glands produce the hormone cortisol, which signals the body to wake up by stimulating the release of glucose (sugar) to give you an energy boost. Initially, this may also be suppressing your natural hunger.
While this is a handy way of getting going in the morning, here’s why you don’t want to rely on cortisol to keep you fueled throughout the morning. Cortisol is a hormone that is usually released in response to stress. Without some nourishment first thing in the morning to provide fresh fuel for your body and to signal cortisol levels to drop again, cortisol and glucose continue to be released into the blood. Continuous high levels of cortisol in the body mimic stressful conditions and can cause elevated blood pressure and increased abdominal fat, among other things. Over prolonged periods, this can contribute to weight gain, obesity and even the development of diabetes and heart disease.
So how do you put together a quick, balanced breakfast that will sustain you throughout your busy morning without weighing you down?
- A good breakfast should have protein as the star, with a side of fiber-rich carbs from fresh fruit, vegetables and/or whole grains. This formula works whether you are an omnivore, a vegetarian, a paleo diet follower, gluten-free, lactose intolerant, and so on. Good protein sources are yogurt, cottage cheese, cheese, eggs, legumes, nuts, seeds, or meat. Protein (and fat, which usually comes along with your protein) takes longer to digest, so it keeps you feeling satisfied for longer.
- Avoid refined, sugary breakfast options like sweetened cereals, pastries and sweet coffee drinks because these will cause blood sugar spikes and dips that will leave you feeling tired and irritable. More importantly, these foods don’t give you any real nutrition, so they also leave you hankering for more. The combination of tiredness, irritability and hunger inevitably leads to poor food choices later on in the day.
Try these tasty breakfast ideas:
- Quesadilla made with whole wheat or corn tortilla, cheddar cheese and thinly sliced apples
- Turkey roll-up with hummus and sliced red peppers
- Scrambled eggs on sautéed greens (spinach, kale or chard)
- Smoothie made from whole foods (4 ounces plain kefir, ½ banana, 1 cup frozen berries, ¼ avocado, 1 tablespoon chia seeds)
If breakfast is not already part of your morning routine, getting into the habit may be tough at first. Start with small portions and build up to regular-size portions. Or stick with a small but balanced breakfast and make sure you have a small but balanced snack mid-morning.
Remember that some of the benefits of a healthy breakfast can be lost if you are eating on the run, no matter what you are eating, because being relaxed is important for proper digestion and nutrient absorption. Take a few extra minutes in the morning to prepare and enjoy a healthy breakfast, and you’ll soon feel the benefits.
Carol White, MS, RD, CD, has her Master’s degree in nutrition from Bastyr University and a Bachelor’s degree in writing. Blogging about nutrition allows her to blend her dual passions for writing and nutrition education. She currently works as a clinical dietitian in several skilled nursing facilities in the Seattle area.