Breakfast: The Most Important Meal of the Day?

Breakfast has always been my favorite meal. Growing up, my mom was keen on ensuring her kids would be healthy and strong and routinely touted the importance of a good breakfast. Without breakfast, the day was on hold: no friends, no school, no errands or tasks. Breakfast was in many ways a ritual and a time to connect and reflect with family prior to starting the day. 

The word breakfast refers to breaking the fasting period from the day prior. This stems from the practice of fasting from sun-down to sun-up in many traditions. Whether eating an omelet in the United States, a fried rice dish in the Philippines or a baguette with cheese in France, breakfast gets our bodies primed for the day. Breakfast floods our system with nutrients and calories to get us going, raising our blood sugar to help our brains to perk up, and providing energy to our muscles. However, if we miss breakfast, our bodies need to start tapping into our energy reserves to get going. This includes energy stored in the muscles and liver, which may lead to a feeling of exhaustion. Skipping breakfast can also cause our metabolism to slow down, making the body think that it needs to conserve calories and energy. This also causes the blood sugar to be more unstable, making us more likely to reach for unhealthy (often sugary) snacks as blood sugar dips throughout the day.

In children and adolescents, breakfast is even more important because of the increased needs of fueling a growing and active body. Of particular importance for school aged children and adolescents is the brain, which is still in development and requires plenty of glucose to function and mature properly. Without breakfast, glucose has to be generated from stores in the body, potentially taking energy away from other demands of development, and maybe even impairing optimal brain functioning. Despite this, a large number of children and adolescents in the United States skip breakfast. With health surveys showing that up to 20% of children and an even larger amount of adolescents regularly miss breakfast

The direct impact of missing breakfast is complex to assess, and proving that many of the positive or negative outcomes of studies are due to missing breakfast alone is very difficult. Much of the research surrounding breakfast relies on participant’s reporting their diet, which may or may not be entirely accurate. A case can also be made that some of the positive effects of breakfast are actually the result of better diets and lifestyles in breakfast eaters and not simply the breakfast itself. Regardless, the simple truth is that eat breakfast is good for your health! Eating a regular breakfast has been linked with better health outcomes in everything from increased productivity and memory retention to lower incidence of obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. 

So what defines a good breakfast? 

All breakfasts are certainly not created equal. At Active Integrative Medicine, we often describe a good breakfast as containing a lean protein and a complex carbohydrate such as a whole grain, fruit, or veggie. In my house, often this is accomplished with a morning smoothie. Some protein considerations for breakfast include eggs, sausage and bacon (good quality, and in small amounts), salmon, yogurt, beans, and tofu. We advise avoiding processed cereals and pastries, as they generally lack nutritional value and have higher glycemic indexes, meaning that they raise blood sugar quickly leading to a mid-morning energy crash. Most importantly, take the time to sit and enjoy breakfast. 

Tips for breakfast and establishing a routine:

  1. Prep food ahead of time. Soak oats overnight, they will cook faster and provide more nutrients. Make hard boiled eggs ahead of time. Keep pre-cut veggies, like mushrooms, onions, peppers, tomatoes, kale, chard, collards, and mustard greens, around that you can easily throw into the pan with your eggs.

  2. Don't forget to include vegetables with your breakfast. Struggling to get to that 5 cups of vegetables a day? Breakfast is another opportunity to get those veggies in.Consider mixed greens with an egg on top. Sweet potatoes and squash make excellent carbohydrate sources at breakfast.

  3. Limit the processed foods in your diet. Avoid processed breakfast cereals and consider making your own granola in the oven.

  4. Make a smoothie for breakfast. Blend up things like greens, berries, cooked beets, carrots, coconut milk, avocado, nuts, fresh ginger, and protein powder. You can also sneak some of your supplements into your smoothie, like your probiotics, fish oils, and any herbal capsules you may be taking.