Even though the mantra “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” was designed as a marketing ploy to get you to buy more cereal, there’s something to be said about how a well-designed breakfast can set you up for success. In terms of health, mental focus, building muscle, and feeling energized, the choices you make and don’t make at the morning meal are crucial.
But not enough people give breakfast the thought it deserves. Too often we run on auto-pilot in the morning, dishing up the same breakfast meals day after day—even if those choices aren’t the wisest. Here are the steps you should be taking to make sure your breakfast is as nutritious as it is delicious.
1. Eat more
If you’re not the type to sit down for a hearty breakfast, you should consider making your morning meal more substantial.
As reported in the International Journal of Nutrition, eating a higher percentage of your total daily calories during the morning and fewer calories at night was associated with lower odds of being overweight or obese among nearly 900 adults. Another study in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that consuming the largest meal of the day at breakfast can help with maintaining a healthy body composition.
Findings published in the journal Nutrition suggest that obtaining a higher percentage of daily calories from breakfast can result in healthier eating habits overall, including lower added sugar and saturated fat intake and a lower total daily calorie intake.
Your daily biological clock appears to regulate how the food you eat is digested and used for fuel; with changes depending on the time of day or night. Calories consumed at breakfast might be handled in a more beneficial way than calories consumed later in the day closer to when you’re getting ready for sleep. One study showed that when consuming equally caloric meals at breakfast and dinner, the diet-induced thermogenesis (the body’s process of burning calories during digestion) is higher after eating the morning meal. Furthermore, a low-calorie breakfast was shown to increase levels of hunger and appetite for sweets during the day.
Action Plan: Too often our dinner (and lunch) meals are more substantial than the morning repast, but research suggests it’s a good idea to shift the calorie balance more towards breakfast. So consider eating a big breakfast, smaller lunch, and lighter dinner. This advice, however, is dependent on your training goals.
2. Include protein
In many cases, breakfast is a meal dominated by high-carb foods like cereal and toast, but is stingy in protein. But there are some important benefits to eating more protein shortly after rolling out of bed.
Research, including a study in the Journal of Nutrition and another published in Cell Reports, shows that dietary protein in the morning may be more important for building muscle than at other times of the day, including dinner. After an overnight fast, the amino acids sourced from the protein in food are important to once again turn on the machinery responsible for muscle protein synthesis and preventing muscle breakdown. So, it can be problematic that so many people backload their protein and consume a lot more at dinner than breakfast.
There’s also evidence that going big on breakfast protein makes you feel fuller for longer. A study in the European Journal of Nutrition found that healthy adults felt less hungry after eating a breakfast containing eggs relative to cereal or croissant-based meals. The higher protein egg-based breakfast was also accompanied by a significantly lower intake of calories at lunch and dinner. One investigation showed that adding dairy-based protein to the carbs at breakfast can improve blood sugar levels and satiety following the meal.
Action Plan: A breakfast with adequate protein should include 20 to 30 grams of the muscle-building macronutrient. Everything from eggs to Greek yogurt to protein powders to peanut butter can help you get the protein you need early in the day. Cottage cheese, hemp seeds, and beans can also power up your breakfast with extra protein.
3. Upgrade your oats
Here’s a good reason to celebrate your love for morning oatmeal: A 2015 study found that people who ate oatmeal for breakfast felt less hungry and consumed an average of 31 percent fewer calories during a meal 3 hours later than those who dined on the same number of calories from a sugary box cereal. The fiber in oatmeal slows down digestion, resulting in fewer hunger pangs and less potential for overeating. And this large study review determined that higher intakes of whole grains cereals like oats are associated with a lower risk of heart disease and all-cause mortality.
But try to make it a habit to use steel-cut oats for your porridge. A recent research review published in the Journal of Nutrition found that blood sugar and insulin responses are better after eating more intact oat kernels such as steel-cut oats than after consuming more processed options like rolled or instant oat flakes. Why? A greater disruption in the structural integrity of the oat kernel is associated with alternations in digestion rates and, in turn, a higher glycemic index—meaning a more rapid rise in blood sugar. This may impact how full you feel during the morning as well as your energy levels. The more rapid rise in blood sugar that comes with eating something like instant oatmeal, especially if sweetened, can result in a subsequent big drop that may make your morning feel like a slog.
4. Plan ahead
If you’re like most people, your mornings likely involve a multitasking blur of tasks that leave little time to leisurely prepare a well-balanced meal. And harried mornings can make it tempting to simply slather jam on a slice of toast or pick up a pastry on the way to the office and call that breakfast.
Stay ahead of the game by preparing some healthy elements of your breakfast ahead of time so they’re ready to go when you are. This is especially important if you know you have a busy week ahead. Baked oatmeal, hard-boiled eggs, a breakfast frittata, yogurt parfaits, homemade granola, freezer breakfast burritos, and chia puddings are all examples of morning glories that can help you bolt out the door with time to spare.
5. Sneak in (at least) one veggie
Few people consider breakfast a time of day to eat their veggies, but doing so can make it a lot easier to get the number of servings you need in a day. And with that the vital fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that vegetables supply. A study published in Circulation found that three daily servings of vegetables (and two fruits) could reduce mortality risk and the risk for cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory illness.
So here’s a challenge that may change the way you approach your first meal of the day: Try to work at least one vegetable serving into your breakfast. The good news is it’s not as hard as you think. Grated carrot, pumpkin puree, and mashed sweet potato are all excellent stirred into a hearty bowl of steel-cut oats. Sliced bell pepper, cherry tomatoes, roasted sweet potato, and baby greens are natural fits for breakfast egg dishes like scrambles. Beets, which have high natural sugar content, can be blended into morning smoothies and even pancake batter. And, yes, breakfast salad is a thing. Who says that breakfast needs to be dominated by sweetness?
6. Find some fat from plants
A well-rounded morning meal should include some plant-based fatty foods. The right high-fat foods from the plant kingdom can make the meal more satisfying and also provide important nutrients, including certain fatty acids necessary for optimal health. Case in point: Researchers from Pennsylvania State University found that consuming alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an omega-3 fatty acid found in walnuts, flaxseed, chia seeds, and hemp seeds, was associated with a 10 percent lower risk of cardiovascular disease and a 20 percent reduced risk of fatal coronary heart disease. A higher intake of ALA was associated with improved blood lipid numbers that could explain some of the heart health benefits.
Sneaking in more healthy fats is hardly a huge effort. Add sliced avocado, which is a great source of heart-benefiting monounsaturated fat, to toast or scrambled eggs, stir ground flaxseed into oatmeal, top a bowl of yogurt or cottage cheese with hemp seeds or chopped walnuts, and blend chia seeds or nut butter into smoothies.
Baked Banana Bread Oatmeal
This hearty make-ahead meal implements all of our elements for a healthier, more convenient breakfast. Note that when baking with protein powder, plant-based options tend to produce better results when it comes to texture than whey powder. You can also add berries to the topping with the yogurt.
- 1 cup steel-cut oats
- 1 1/2 cups rolled oats
- 1/2 cup plain or vanilla protein powder
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 2 large eggs
- 1 cup milk or unsweetened non-dairy milk
- 3 ripe bananas, mashed
- 1 1/2 cups grated carrot
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Brown sugar or maple sugar (optional)
- 2 cups plain Greek yogurt
- Cover steel-cut oats with water and let soak for at least 4 hours.
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Grease a 9×13-inch casserole pan.
- Drain steel-cut oats and stir together with rolled oats, protein powder, walnuts, cinnamon and salt together in a large bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, mashed banana, carrot and vanilla. Add liquid mixture to oats and gently mix until everything is most. Place mixture in prepared dish and sprinkle on some brown or maple sugar if you like. Bake until topping is set and darkened, about 35 minutes.
- Reheat squares of the baked oatmeal in the microwave and serve topped with dollops of yogurt.