Looking for a healthier life? Breakfast is probably the best place to start. While four in ten Americans skip breakfast, those who actually eat breakfast overwhelmingly seem to love sugary, highly refined, nutrition-less foods that will spike their blood pressure, offer empty calories, and lead to health problems down the road. Here’s what we’re commonly eating and how to switch to better, whole foods that actively support health and taste downright delicious.
#1 – Cereal
Cold cereals are the most common breakfast in the country (adults really like Cap’n Crunch and Cocoa Puffs). Some cold cereals might come enriched with vitamins and minerals but they’re all mostly made with refined white flour and loads of added sugar to make them a highly processed “food” product that even CEOs of major cereal brands have said they won’t feed to their children because it would require an insulin shot afterwords (read The Dorito Effect).
Most healthy-sounding cereals still come packed with added sugar. Even if it’s sweetened with organic cane sugar or organic molasses, it’s still added sugar and way too much. Throw in milk, which includes 11-12 grams of sugar (equivalent to 3-4 packs of sugar) and you’ll easily be consuming your daily recommended amount of added sugar (25 grams for women, 38 for men, and only 12-25 for children) before taking a sip of that syrup-laced coffee you might have picked up from Starbucks.
Given that almost 10% of Americans are diabetic and another 1 in 3 are pre-diabetic, these cereals should be avoided. A better choice would be hot cereals that are actually made of whole grains like oats. Whole grains also come with fiber which Americans barely consume. The minimum recommendation is 25-30 grams per day from foods, not supplements, for minimal benefits and we consume only 15 grams. A high-fiber diet appears to reduce the risk of developing various conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, diverticular disease, constipation and colon cancer. Fiber is important for the health of the digestive system and for lowering cholesterol. Additionally, a low fiber diet affects our gut biome negatively, leading to immune and digestive problems among a host of other issues, including mood disruptions like anxiety, nervousness and even depression.
Oats made with a helping of berries and nuts can be a tasty morning dish that will power you through till lunch unlike the sugary breakfasts that put you on the refined carb roller-coaster and cause brain fog, stupor and hunger pangs by mid mornings. A serving of oats with fruit and nuts stirred in will give you three servings of needed whole foods to provide your body the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to perform normally throughout the day and repair itself. Guess what? You won’t have brain fog either.
#2 – Flavored Yogurts
For people on the go, yogurt is a common choice. But it might surprise you to know that a leading brand of yogurt, for example, has 7 teaspoons (29 grams) of total sugars in a single serving, most of it added. For women and children, that already exceeds your daily recommended amount and is far along in meeting it for men. This is because single serve yogurt often come with sweetened granola or dubious “fruit” that’s mostly sugar syrup of some sort with a speck of fruit added to it. The food industry also likes to include cookie-like dunkers or even sour patch gummies in Go-Gurts marketed for children. These aren’t breakfasts so much as desserts and junk food. Even strawberry flavored yogurt from Yoplait has 22 grams of sugar, 17 grams of which are added.
The better option would be to buy regular, unflavored yogurt and sweeten it naturally with a serving of real fruits and nuts. This will give you plenty of vitamins, minerals and protein to again help you get through the morning without a sugar crash and its accompanying hunger pangs. Buy a tub of plain yogurt, a bag of grapes and a bag of your favorite nuts (preferably unsalted and unroasted). Take them to work if you’re pressed for time and mix and eat them there. You’ll be doing yourself a huge favor over the remade “yogurt” on the shelf in the dairy aisle that’s mostly dairy and sugar.
#3 – Donuts, Muffins & Bagels
Americans eat a diet primarily of processed foods and refined carbs. They make up 62% of our diets. If you’re eating donuts, muffins and bagels in the morning, you’re eating a processed, refined carb breakfast. These will spike your blood sugar and put you on the refined carb roller-coaster of cravings and hunger which leads to mid-morning fatigue and snacking.
If you love dessert for breakfast, why not make banana cookies for your breakfast for the week? They’re super simple (containing only banana and oats), yet also sweet and satisfying while still being healthy for you. You can add walnuts, peanut butter or other nut butters, dried figs, cinnamon, or pumpkin pie spice to make these even more delicious. Or what about cashew vanilla energy bites that look and taste like dessert but are actually pretty darn healthy?
#4 – Granola or Breakfast Bars
These two type of bars are quick and easy to consume for people in a hurry. Unfortunately, despite their generally healthy appearance and marketing, granola bars and most breakfast bars are far from healthy. Instead they’re loaded with sugars – whether organic molasses, organic cane sugar, honey or just your regular sugar or high fructose corn syrup. These are all added sugars which count against the 25 to 38 grams recommended for adults (and this is probably still too much). These bars are also full of preservatives and added substances and very little nutrition. You’d be better off thinking of them as junk food, even the kinds produced by “healthy” brands.
For busy people who eat a light breakfast like grab and go bars, you’d be better off making hard-boiled eggs for the week and taking them to work to eat. Protein actually represses hunger and you get “free calories” so to speak for protein. 100 calories of protein actually winds up more like 75 calories since roughly 25 percent burns off as heat rather than getting absorbed. Meanwhile, fat by comparison will be more efficiently digested so you get almost all its calories. Not into eggs? Grab a homemade fruit cup and some nuts. If you like granola, pick up some or make some for yourself – just check the ingredients. You’ll be surprised by the amount of added sugars from brown sugar, molasses or honey so avoid these.
#5 – Fast Food
If you’re wanting high quantities of your daily requirements of salt, sugar and fat, then fast food breakfasts are perfect. Even the five “healthiest” breakfast items at McDonalds come loaded with 750 mg to 1,030 mg of salt each. Meanwhile the American Heart Association has an ideal limit of 1,500 mg per day for adults. While experts argue over whether over-consumption of salt or sugar actually leads to heart disease or high blood pressure (they both could), researchers have linked high salt intake to stomach cancer. This is unsurprising if you stop and consider that salt is a preservative (so is sugar) and it will affect our gut biome negatively, unbalancing it to favor some harmful bacteria over the good bacteria we carry in our digestive system. In the case of stomach cancer, the harmful bacteria is Helicobacter pylori (H pylori) which causes infections highly correlated with stomach cancer.
Skip the line at fast food places. If you’ve got time to wait at the drive thru window or go in and order, you have time to heat up oats or make a bowl of yogurt with fruit and nuts in the break room. You may even have time to scramble eggs at home (they’re super quick), adding in veggies like spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes or whatever veggies you prefer. Why not do breakfast tacos using corn tortillas? Even preparing boiled eggs ahead of time would be a time-saver for the busy and a great source of protein in the morning. Add a side of fruit and you’re good to go.
#6 – Pastries & Poptarts
If you’re grabbing a pastry at your coffee stop in the morning or like grab and go treats like Poptarts, you’re loading your body with sugar, salt and fat first thing in the morning. These are highly processed, refined carbs that will put you on the refined carb roller-coaster mentioned before. Even if your pastry has a whiff of apple or berry in it, you’ll still get mostly sugar and refined carbs that will harm your body despite giving you a bit of energy while the carb rush lasts.
You’d be better off having some sort of protein in the morning. Why not make breakfast beans ahead of time for breakfast for the week that you can heat up at home or work? They’ll come loaded with protein and fiber which will keep you full longer and promote proper digestive health. Surprisingly, beans are the one food linked to longevity in studies done on global health – the only food that made a positive difference in longevity when race, sex, age and other factors were considered. This is due to their high load of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Need a quick recipe? Mix up any white bean variety with tomato sauce to make simple homemade breakfast beans similar to British style baked beans (American style are made with molasses). Scramble in sausage or tempeh, onions and garlic to make it even heartier. You can buy British style baked beans too but check the ingredients for added sugar or corn syrups. If you’re really feeling hungry, add a side of fruit and you’re good to go all morning.
#7 – Pizza
In a poll of breakfasts around the country, people surprisingly mentioned pizza as a go to breakfast. Full-time workers were 23 points more likely to eat this over people who didn’t work. Like other fast foods, pizza is mostly salt, fat and refined carbs which means once again the refined carb roller-coaster of spiking and falling blood sugar, brain fog, and more carb cravings around mid-morning. The health impacts of a diet of processed foods are well-documented. While pizza is highly satisfying, it offers relatively nothing your body needs to function well and may hurt you long-term (read my articles Why I Gave Up Bread and What Happened When I Gave Up Bread).
Rather than eating junk food, why not grab a smoothie instead? You can endlessly mix and match these with a variety of fruits, greens, nut butters and your choice of milk or non-dairy alternatives like coconut milk and almond milk. They’re quick to make and easy to pack and take to work. With some experimentation you can find at least a handful of smoothies you’ll enjoy. They’re a wonderful and delicious way to get in daily recommended servings of fruits and greens, as well as loading your body with needed vitamins and minerals at the start of the day. Personally, I use my Ninja blender which comes with various sized cups with lids for easy mix and go.
Putting Breakfast First
If you’re serious about your health (or even concerned about your waistline), what you eat is the first place to start. Breakfast is an easy place to begin. Rather than reach for processed food or over-sugared and over-salted junk masquerading as food, why not treat your body to what it actually needs to function well, repair itself and keep you healthy? So many amazing and delicious whole foods exist that will do this for you. Need ideas? Check out these 17 healthy whole food breakfast recipes and 30 additional breakfast recipes to whet your appetite. You’ll easily find at least a handful of breakfasts to love and turn into delicious staples for building a better, healthier and more energetic life for yourself.
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