By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
Is breakfast really the “most important meal of the day?” Growing up, my mom sure instilled this belief in me and insisted I eat scrambled eggs and toast every morning.
The relative importance of breakfast is a trendy debate topic right now. There are plenty of experts willing to pass on breakfast, claiming there’s nothing special about it—or that there’s nothing wrong with skipping it altogether. But there are just as many who will eagerly point to research that shows eating breakfast is associated with lower risk of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, and overall mortality.
As a cardiologist and a nutritionist, I believe it’s best for your health to eat breakfast. However, it’s also important to be mindful of what you eat. Eating the wrong things can be worse than not eating at all.
How to Choose Healthy Foods to Eat for Breakfast
The trick to building a healthy breakfast is to select foods that deliver enough nutritional value to get you going and keep you feeling full, without overstimulating your insulin response.
I do this by making sure my breakfast foods contain ample amounts of fiber, fat, and protein.
Fiber, fat, and protein are all low glycemic so they don’t make your insulin levels spike. Too much insulin is inflammatory to arteries and sets you up for rollercoaster-like waves of hunger and hypoglycemia (blood sugar that is too low). When lower-glycemic foods are consumed, your insulin response is automatically more controlled and your body absorbs nutrients over a longer period of time.
A good analogy for this is drinking on an empty stomach. When you have a glass of wine without food, the alcohol hits you hard and fast. The same glass of wine, consumed along with nuts, cheese, or dinner, is absorbed much more gradually.
The same thing happens when you combine fatty and fiber-rich foods with breakfast foods that are on the high end of the glycemic index, like breads and other carbs that break down quickly into sugar.
Easy, Healthy Breakfast Recipes / Combos
Let’s take a look at a few examples of healthy breakfasts that apply this principle:
#1— Organic Eggs Paired With an Organic Veggie Burger or Avocado and Fresh Fruit
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: eggs are the perfect food. They provide healthy fat, solid protein, lots of important vitamins and minerals, and choline, a vitamin-like nutrient your body needs to produce cell membranes. Yes, there is cholesterol in the yolks, but there’s no need to avoid it, as I wrote in The Great Cholesterol Myth Cookbook. Eggs are also associated with a reduced risk of diabetes.
I like to pair my eggs with an organic veggie burger (no bun) for fiber. You can also add sliced avocado to your plate for a dose of – you got it – healthy monounsaturated fat and antioxidants, including vitamins E & C and glutathione. In just one-half of an avocado you get approximately 4.6 grams of fiber, 6.7 grams of monounsaturated fat, and only .2 grams of sugar! Additionally, you get a good dose of both potassium and magnesium, as well as Vitamin A and K and various B vitamins and vitamins. Add the carotenoid, lutein,and phytosterols to the mix, and you’ve got one nutrient-dense, high vibrational fruit! Researchers recently cited all of these avocado constituents in a review of 8 avocado cardiovascular clinical trials. But not only is avocado great for your heart, it also benefits your brain, which needs healthy fat and antioxidant support to function optimally. For additional fiber and phytonutrients, you can complete the meal with fresh organic fruits like apples, grapes, pears, oranges, or even tomatoes!
#2—Nut Butter and an Apple
If you’re short on time and don’t want to spend a ton of time in the kitchen, slice up an apple and dip it in the organic nut butter of your choice—almond, peanut, cashew, or walnut. The nut butter will provide the fat and protein, and one medium-sized apple will provide 12 percent of the daily RDA for fiber. Apples also are rich in the do-it-all nutrient vitamin C, which may explain why eating an apple a day is so well known for its ability to “keep the doctor away.”
#3—Healthy Muffins and Pancakes
Yes, there are some muffins that I consider healthy, particularly flax muffins spread with coconut oil. If you’re a die-hard grab-and-go person, this breakfast option is for you. I’m a big fan of the flax muffins made fresh at my organic grocery store. They’re packed with fiber and taste great when cut in half and lightly toasted, with coconut oil spread on them. They’re also small-sized portions, not the huge ones you find in supermarkets; If I’m still hungry, I’ll have one of the healthy breakfast smoothies above instead of another flax muffin.
You may have to do some searching to find a similar product in your neighborhood, but breakfast really doesn’t get any easier than this. Just don’t forget to add the coconut oil or butter for extra fat content and don’t use margarine to offset insulin response. Despite all the hype, it’s not a healthy substitute.
Pancakes can be a healthy breakfast food when they’re not made with white refined flour and not covered in syrup. I like pancakes made with buckwheat flour or from ground oats and flax, with added organic blueberries or strawberries. You can also grate a fresh, peeled apple or two into whole grain pancake batter, and sprinkle some cinnamon in it.
This spin on the traditional pancake breakfast will elicit less of an insulin response than pancakes made with white flour. It also is a nice option if you’re looking for a family style sit-down breakfast. Just follow this recipe:
- 3/4 cup of rolled oats and 1/4 cup flaxseed, ground into flour, or buckwheat flour
- 1/2 to 1 cup milk (depending on how thick you like your pancakes and how much egg you use)
- 1-2 eggs (2 is better if you add fruit, to hold pancakes together)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1-2 Tbsp butter, melted
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- Organic fruit of your choice: berries, apples, mashed bananas, etc.
Mix wet ingredients together in one bowl and dry in another, then add dry to wet ingredients. Fruit goes in last. Cook in a skillet over medium to medium-high heat.
You’re probably thinking, “well, what about syrup?” I have no objection to modest amounts of maple syrup – which contains health-promoting compounds, as long as it’s the real deal, not the fake stuff made from corn syrup. Warm applesauce makes a good topper too. Again, butter or coconut oil adds healthy fat that helps slow insulin response.
Healthy Breakfast Ideas for Kids
As many, if not most, parents can attest, getting kids to eat healthy breakfast foods can be a challenge.
Kids tend to like simple carbohydrates—bread, especially. If you can blend that natural preference with some protein and healthy fat, you’ll be well on your way to making sure they start the day on a healthy foot.
Here are a few options to try with little ones:
- Toasted whole-grain bread (go with the least refined you can find, preferably with seeds) paired with an organic egg or nut butter. Prepare the egg however your child will eat it—scrambled, hard boiled, poached, or fried (in coconut oil or butter). If nut allergies are an issue, try sunflower seed butter or avocado;
- Healthier pancakes (see above) or French toast (which is coated in egg) topped with butter only. Again, maple syrup is okay if real and used sparingly and with butter or coconut oil;
- A small bowl of nut butter (some kids will eat it with a spoon) and a banana;
- Chocolate smoothie made with – get this – baby spinach, kidney beans, canned pumpkin, soymilk or almond milk, banana, nut butter, unsweetened cocoa powder, and maple syrup to taste. For best results, I’d suggest not making this healthy breakfast smoothie in front of the kids.
Foods You Should NOT Eat for Breakfast
Of course there are some things you should never eat for breakfast. Processed foods are out, as are jams, jellies, and anything with added sugar. Donuts and pastries—though they may taste good—are definite no-nos.
Keep in mind, too, that when shopping for high-fiber cereals and grains, buy organic. It’s the only way to avoid the GMOs present in corn and possibly wheat. I also urge you to use the Dirty Dozen/Clean 15 food lists when shopping for berries and produce, for guidance on avoiding pesticide residues.
- Bi H, et al. Breakfast skipping and the risk of type 2 diabetes: a meta-analysis of observational studies. Public Health Nutr. 2015 Nov;18(16):3013–9.
- Cahill LE, et al. A prospective study of breakfast eating and incident coronary heart disease in a cohort of male U.S. health professionals. Circulation. 2013 Jul 23;128(4):337–343.
- Dreher, Mark L., and Adrienne J. Davenport. Hass Avocado Composition and Potential Health Effects. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 53.7 (2013): 738–750. PMC. Web. 10 May 2017.
- Uemura M, et al. Breakfast skipping is positively associated with incidence of type 2 diabetes mellitus: Evidence fom the Aichi Workers’ Cohort study. J Epidemiol. 2015;25(5):351–8.
- Yokoyama Y, et al. Skipping breakfast and risk of mortality from cancer, circulatory diseases and all causes: Findings from the Japan Collaborative Cohort study. Yonago Acta Med. 2016 Mar;59(1):55–60.
© Stephen Sinatra, MD. All rights reserved.