The Best and Worst Foods for Breakfast
June 30, 2023
Often called the most important meal of the day, breakfast is a break from the fasting you do overnight as you sleep. The morning meal replenishes the body’s main source of energy – glucose – while providing a number of other health benefits, including:
- Increasing mental focus.
- Fulfilling part of the recommended daily intake of vitamins and minerals.
- Helping regulate and control appetite and weight.
- Lowering the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, obesity, heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
- Improving digestive, bone and metabolic health.
But are some breakfast foods a better choice than others?
“I don’t like to put foods – breakfast foods or otherwise – in rigid ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories,” says registered dietitian Jennifer Kerner, RD, LD. “Instead of regarding certain foods as forbidden, it’s better to see healthy food choices as a spectrum that takes into account moderation, portion sizes and other factors. Having said that, there are certainly things to seek and limit when looking to maximize the nutrition of your breakfast.”
What to Avoid or Limit at Breakfast
In 2020, the FDA required all new food labels to display added sugars. This includes any sugars or caloric sweeteners added to foods and beverages during processing or preparation. Consuming too much added sugar is linked to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and a range of other health problems. Because added sugars increase calories without adding any nutrients, they’re considered empty calories.
Sugars found naturally in foods and those broken down from complex carbohydrates are generally more than enough to sustain a person’s blood sugar (glucose) needs. Naturally occurring sugars include those found in fruits and dairy milk.
Kerner says, “When you eat a piece of fruit, you’re consuming sugar in the form of fructose. But because that natural sugar is tied up in a food matrix that also contains fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, your body digests the sugar at a slower rate, making it a longer-lasting, steady source of energy.”
In contrast, foods high in added sugar quickly spike blood sugar levels, causing a short burst of energy followed by a sharp drop in blood sugar and fatigue. Foods high in added sugar include many cereals, breakfast bars and other healthy food impostors. The sugar crash is often followed by the return of the feeling of hunger.
Healthy Food “Impostors”
Kerner says that many people assume popular breakfast foods are healthy, when they’re not. For example, many smoothies are little more than glorified milkshakes and many breakfast muffins are essentially cupcakes with a healthier-sounding name. Similarly, while granola and breakfast bars can be a healthy choice, many are low in protein and high in added sugars.
“It’s just one more reason to read your food’s nutrition label,” Kerner says. “When possible, go for the higher-fiber, higher-protein, lower-sugar foods.”
Misleading Serving Sizes
Whether it’s breakfast or any other another meal, the portion size is often the problem more than the food itself. Serving sizes of both store-bought foods and those served at restaurants are often misleadingly large.
“It’s one thing to enjoy a small portion of homemade hash browns as part of a balanced breakfast that you prepare at home,” says Kerner. “It’s quite another thing to eat at a diner where they cover three fourths of your plate in hash browns—and serve you two pieces of toast on top of that.”
High-Sugar Coffee Drinks
Many people like to start off their day with coffee or a coffee-based beverage. However, most of these coffee drinks contain whopping amounts of sugar and calories.
For some people, trying a milder brew of coffee – which might not need sugar to mask the natural bitterness – can be a good way to cut back on sugar in the morning. Also, many breakfast blends have a delicious, nutty flavor and may not need additional sweeteners.
For iced coffee lovers, cold brew has a very low level of bitterness, so switching to cold brew enjoyed either black or with a sugar-free sweetener or creamer could be a good alternative.
In general, energy drinks should be avoided at breakfast, particularly when used as a meal replacement. Energy drinks can temporarily curb appetite, but they don’t provide the prolonged energy and nourishment that a balanced breakfast does.
What to Include in Your Breakfast
Including protein in your breakfast promotes a feeling of fullness. You should eat just enough to feel comfortably full without having a strong urge to eat more. Consuming protein in the morning can also help curb and regulate your appetite for the rest of the day.
When you eat a breakfast that combines protein with carbohydrates, the protein slows digestion and the release of sugars into your bloodstream. This helps sustain you until your midday meal by keeping your blood sugar levels stable. Eating a balance of protein and carbohydrates is particularly important for people with diabetes or other blood sugar-related issues.
“Having eggs or some peanut butter with your toast is much better than just eating some toast by itself,” says Kerner. “Other good protein sources for breakfast include cheese, cottage cheese, turkey or chicken sausage, and smoked salmon.”
“And if you prefer the convenience or taste of smoothies for breakfast, you can add protein to smoothies in the form of protein powder, peanut butter powder, tofu or cottage cheese.”
However, Kerner urges her patients not to restrict themselves to proteins traditionally viewed as “breakfast foods.” For example, there is nothing wrong with enjoying leftovers from yesterday’s dinner for breakfast – especially if they contain a mix of protein and healthy carbohydrates, like vegetables or rice.
Foods With Complex Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are essential nutrients found in certain foods and drinks. The three main types of carbohydrates are starches, sugars and fiber. Because the body digests simple carbohydrates quickly, eating foods high in simple carbohydrates can lead to blood sugar spikes, sugar crashes and the resulting fatigue.
Complex carbohydrate foods include grains, beans, fruits, potatoes and other vegetables. For people who like to eat cereal for breakfast, Kerner recommends trying whole grain varieties.
“Unlike refined grains, which are stripped of their nutrients in the refining process, whole grains contain all three parts of the grain – bran, germ and endosperm – each of which packs its own healthy nutrients. Refined grain cereals, on other the other hand, such as puffed rice cereal, lack the fiber, vitamins and minerals naturally found in their whole grain counterparts.”
Oatmeal, rolled oats and “overnight oats” are also a great whole grain option for breakfast. Kerner also encourages people to explore the many other whole grains available on the market. For example, delicious and nourishing porridges, breads and other foods can be made from whole grains such as millet, buckwheat, quinoa, freekeh and teff.
Include a Little Fat
It’s not a great idea to go completely fat-free at breakfast time. Why? Because a small amount of fat is satisfying and helps curb the urge to eat more.
“Some people may think they are doing good by just having egg whites on a dry piece of toast for breakfast,” says Kerner. “But including a little fat can increase feelings of fullness and help better regulate your appetite throughout the day.”
University Hospitals’ Clinical Nutrition Department offers comprehensive nutrition services to improve health and quality of life for our patients. Learn more.