Breakfast sets the stage for the day ahead, and it can either drain or energize us, depending on the what, when and how much aspects of the meal. While health experts agree that many traditional breakfast foods can do more harm than good, delicious, healthy alternatives are within easy reach of the breakfast table.
Morning favorites like pastries, sugary cereals and pancakes, high in refined sugars and carbs, cause insulin production to spike and blood sugar levels to crash, according to David Perlmutter, an acclaimed neurologist based in Naples, Florida, and author of Grain Brain: The Surprising Truth about Wheat, Carbs, and Sugar – Your Brain’s Silent Killers. “People need to train their bodies to tap into the energy reserves within, harvesting fat for energy rather than being reliant on the next meal. A breakfast high in protein and fat will do that,” he says.
While often waiting until noon for his first meal of the day, Perlmutter frequently opts for eggs and salad drenched in an extra-virgin olive oil dressing to break the fast. Perlmutter suggests waiting 12 hours or longer between dinner and the next day’s breakfast. “Time-restricted eating”, or intermittent fasting, can have surprising health benefits, helping crank up production of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a powerful initiator for growth of new brain cells, and kick-start autophagy, the body’s method of cleaning out damaged cells, according to the neurologist.
A plant-based chef based in Bruges, Belgium, Julie Van den Kerchove switched from a raw, vegan diet to a mainly keto diet, low in carbohydrates, to regain energy after “hitting a wall, experiencing hormonal imbalances and nutritional deficiencies. Before, I would have green smoothies with lots of fruit and leafy greens, but would be ‘hangry’ a few hours later. Now my breakfast consists more of healthy fats and proteins, which helps me stay satisfied and energized until lunchtime. I experience more mental clarity and calmness because my blood sugar is not going up and down,” says Van den Kerchove, a blogger and author of vegan, raw-food and keto cookbooks.
A typical breakfast for her now is a chia seed pudding with a nut or coconut milk, berries, nuts and seeds with a protein powder and stevia, which is easy to prepare in advance, or a warm porridge with hemp seeds, nut butter, chia seeds and almond, hemp or coconut milk, which is high in fiber and healthy fats. “If I feel like [having] something savory, I’ll have seed crackers topped with avocado and eggs or a Mediterranean omelet,” she adds.
Teresa Fung, a professor of nutrition at Simmons University and adjunct professor at Harvard University, both in Boston, cautions about completely cutting carbs from breakfast, however. “Fruits and vegetables are important healthy sources of carbs, essential to get enough fiber to maintain healthy gut microbiome and feed the good bacteria in your GI tract,” says Fung, who is an associate editor for The Journal of Nutrition. “Optimal morning fuel will include a good dose of protein, vitamins and minerals, fiber, antioxidants and some heart-healthy fats. It will also include a healthy source of carbs that your body can use as energy, leaving proteins to be used for protein synthesis,” says Fung, suggesting a simple, but hearty breakfast of high-fiber oatmeal or yogurt with nuts and fruit.
Like Perlmutter, Fung stresses the importance of eating during daylight hours when certain enzymes are activated. “Our bodies react to daylight even when our eyes are still closed. Eating should match up with our biological clocks, as we are daytime animals, using most of our energy in the day,” she says.
Fung notes Americans that tend to make breakfast the smallest meal of the day and dinner the largest need to better balance meal sizes rather than load up on calories late in the day.
These experts agree on the need to tune into the body’s signals for hunger and satiety, not just eating breakfast on an autopilot schedule. “If I’ve eaten a huge holiday dinner the night before, I may skip my morning meal. I’m a huge proponent in being flexible and listening to your body,” says Van den Kerchove.