Breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day, yet a large proportion of the population regularly misses this meal.1 Of those who do manage to eat something in the morning, the majority reach for something quick and convenient such as breakfast cereal.2 But are breakfast cereals a good choice? And what exactly makes a nutritious breakfast?
A Meal Not to Be Missed
Breakfast literally means “breaking the fast.” After fasting overnight, breakfast helps top up the energy stores your body uses during the night to repair and regenerate itself and kick-starts the body’s metabolism.1
Science has frequently shown that eating breakfast is important. Skipping breakfast has been reported to have a negative impact on memory, concentration and learning. It has also been linked to obesity. Studies suggest that people who don’t eat breakfast are nearly twice as obese as those who do.3 A UK-based study involving 6,764 middle-aged men showed that those who had breakfast ate significantly less throughout the rest of the day than those individuals who skipped breakfast. The reason? Breakfast helps stabilize blood sugar levels that control appetite and energy. Evidently, breakfast is not a meal to be missed.4 However, even if clients are eating breakfast, emerging research shows that what you eat for breakfast matters just as much as whether you eat it.
The type of breakfast and its impact on weight management is an active area of research. Some large observational studies suggest that eating breakfast, especially one that includes whole grain foods (such as whole grain bread or whole grain cereal) is linked to a lower BMI and reduces the chances of having a heart attack or stroke, or developing type 2 diabetes.3 Researchers looking specifically into whether the type of carbohydrate (complex vs. refined) you eat for breakfast matters, have found that it does. Results show that opting for complex carbohydrates (e.g., oats) instead of refined carbohydrates (e.g., cornflakes) has positive effects on insulin levels, feelings of fullness and overall mood.5
More recent studies have tried to compare the effect of low-protein breakfasts to higher-protein breakfasts. The meals used in these comparison studies vary somewhat from white bagel (low protein) and egg (high protein), to the typical cereal-and-milk breakfast vs yogurt and protein-enriched waffles with syrup.6,7 Results show that having a protein source at breakfast increases feelings of satiety; helps control appetite and improves attention, focus and memory.7, 8
Increasing numbers of personal trainers are advising clients that they should start off their day with a meal of meat and nuts. While it's hard to argue with a diet that kicks highly processed food off the plate and is based on lean protein instead, there aren't actually any specific studies that justify the claims that meat and nuts are the ultimate breakfast combo. More research is needed to determine the gold standard breakfast type.
The Paleo diet may be reasonably healthy, but so are other eating styles based on diets such as the Okinawa diet or even the Mediterranean diet. Both of these include whole grains such as oats, barley and wild rice but like the Paleo diet exclude highly processed foods such as refined grains – the real enemy of a healthy breakfast.8
Worst Meal of the Day?
With 87% of households eating breakfast every day, Britain has the world’s highest per capita consumption of breakfast cereal according to a Euro-monitor study.2 However, Which? recently investigated 100 branded breakfast cereals based on the Foods Standard Agency’s (FSA) “a lot” and “a little” criteria. They found that 85% of cereals contained “a lot” of sugar, 9% contained “a lot” of saturated fat and 40% contained “a lot” of salt.9
Historically, breakfast cereal manufacturers have tried to justify the high sugar and salt levels in cereals by stating that, based on the serving sizes recommended, cereals should not significantly contribute to energy, sugar and salt in the diet. Not surprisingly, with all the added sugar and salt that makes cereal taste so good, many people eat much more than the recommended portions. According to the FSA, a small serving of cereal is 25g, an average serving 30g and a large serving 50g. A survey commissioned by the FSA looking into the difference between actual and recommended servings, revealed that more than three-quarters of the nation eat two-to-three times more than the portion sizes recommended.10
What Makes a Good Breakfast?
The pace of modern life has driven many to think convenience foods like breakfast cereal are the only way. However, with a little creativity, you can help make breakfast the most exciting meal of the day for clients:11
- Variety is the spice of life. Including a range of food groups in breakfast will help ensure a wide range of nutrients and vitamins. Aim to include at least three food groups per meal from the following: starchy carbs, protein, vegetables and fruit, essential fats and low-fat dairy/dairy alternatives.
- Choose your carbs carefully. Pastries, white bread and high-sugar cereals are refined carbohydrates that play havoc with blood sugar levels. Opt for slow-release carbs such as whole oats, whole grain breads, barley, quinoa, berries and vegetables. These will release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream and provide sustained energy levels.
- Add a protein source. Protein in a meal helps maintain blood sugar levels and helps you stay fuller for longer. Eggs or egg substitutes, nuts, seeds, nut butters, cottage cheese, low-fat Greek yogurt, oily fish, lean meats and pulses are all good sources of protein.
Familiar breakfast choices that are also nutritious
- Scrambled egg with smoked salmon on whole grain toast. As well as other nutrients, the yolks contain zeathanthin and lutein to prevent or even reverse age-related macular degeneration. Salmon is a great source of omega-3 fats.
- Poached eggs on whole grain toast with grilled tomatoes and mushrooms. Eggs contain a wide range of vitamins and minerals including vitamin D for bone health and gene regulation. Cooked tomatoes are rich in cancer-protective lycopene.
- Oats porridge topped with nuts, seeds and blueberries. Whole grain oats are full of fiber and rich in B vitamins. Adding nuts and seeds increases the protein content of meals and boosts your omega-3 intake. Blueberries are packed with antioxidants such as anthocyanins.
Clients can't go without cereal and milk? Opt for cereals that are:10
- 100% whole grain: these words should be at the top of the food label
- High in fiber: 5g of dietary fiber per serving or more
- Low in sugar: 8g of sugar or less per serving ( 4tsp)
- Low in sodium/salt: less than 200mg sodium per serving
- Rich in vitamins and minerals
- High in protein: nuts and whole grain will increase protein intake
Making breakfast part of your clients' daily routine is a must. If they don’t have breakfast then this is the first step. Once breakfast becomes a habit, the next goal is making sure they consume a quality breakfast. When it comes to advising our clients, always consider their goals and lifestyle and remember that one size does not fit all. You may find it easy to have a chicken breast and broccoli for breakfast – they might not. Work with them and find out what sustainable breakfast choices are suitable. Remember that breakfast is just one – albeit important – meal of the day and the overall diet of your client will influence their health more than an individual meal or type of food.
When you make breakfast recommendations to your clients, keep in mind: variety, slow-release carbs, a protein source and fluid, and you won’t go wrong. For those clients that are hard-core breakfast cereal fans, encourage them to become label savvy, or suggest they have breakfast cereals as dessert as many of them are more suited for this.
- Associate Parliament Food and Health Forum. Report of the FHF Spring Conference: 2009. http://www.fhf.org.uk/meetings/2009-05-19_report.pdf
- Euromonitor International. Available online at: http://www.euromonitor.com/breakfast-cereals-in-the-united-kingdom/report Accessed on 30 March 2012.
- Sungsoo Cho et al (2003), The effect of breakfast type on total daily energy intake and body mass index: Results from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANNES III), J Am Coll Nutr., 22(4)296-302.
- Lisa R et al (2008), Energy intake at breakfast and weight change: Prospective study of 6764 middle-aged men and women, Am J Epidemiol, 167(2):188-192.
- Pasman et al (2003), Effect of two breakfasts, different in carbohydrate composition on hunger and satiety and mood in healthy men, Int. J of Obesity, 663-668.
- Vander Wal JS, Marth JM, Khosla P, Jen KL, Dhurandhar NV (2005), Short-term effect of eggs on satiety in overweight and obese subjects, J Am Coll Nutr., 24(6):510-515.
- Leidy HJ et al (2011), The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men, Obesity, 19:818-24.
- Willcox C (2009), The Okinawan Diet: Health implications of a low-calorie, nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich dietary pattern low in glycaemic, J Am Nutr. 28(4)Supplement 1: 500S-516S.
- WHICH? Breakfast cereal review. Available here. Accessed on 30 March 2012.
- Food Standards Agency. Available online here. Accessed on 30 March 2012.
- Thomas B, Bishop J (2007), Manual of dietetic practice, 4th edition, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.