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Breakfast: The Best Way to Start the Day

Aside from increasing mental and physical performance, a breakfast of champions can help you to achieve and maintain optimal weight and energy levels. Furthermore, what you put in your mouth (or don't) in the morning can also be indicative of your future health!
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"I don't have time."

"I don't like cereal."

"I'm allergic to eggs."

"I'm not hungry when I wake up."

There are plenty of reasons that people skip breakfast. But there are even more reasons why they shouldn't.

Aside from increasing mental and physical performance, a breakfast of champions can help you to achieve and maintain optimal weight and energy levels. Furthermore, what you put in your mouth (or don't) in the morning can also be indicative of your future health! Here's how the first meal of the day can affect your lifelong health:

1. Weight Control -- Some people think that skipping meals, starting with breakfast, is a great way to lose weight. That's simply not the case. Breakfast-skipping actually has the opposite effect. Holding off until noon for that first meal usually results in uber-hunger. This can lead to an out-of-control appetite when you do eat because you're so famished. That can result in both eating too fast and consuming too many calories. It also contributes to distorted hunger signals (e.g., you can't tell when you're full). Believe it or not, smaller, more frequent meals can make weight control much more likely. And researchers now believe that eating breakfast may reduce hunger later in the day too. It may also be responsible for the tendency to choose less dense (lower-calorie) foods at later meals.

2. Brain power -- A veggie omelette + whole grain toast = recipe for a productive morning? Yes, researchers believe that increased clarity and concentration are due in part to replenishing glucose, the brain's main energy source. Sure, glucose is sugar, but it's not quite that simple. It has something to do with a concept called the "glycemic index," or GI. According to Dr. E. Leigh Gibson of Roehampton University in London, most studies suggest that quite a small amount, about 25 grams of carbohydrate (equivalent to a slice of whole grain toast with a tablespoon of sugar-free jam) can improve performance, especially of memory. However, much more carbohydrate, especially if they're high-GI foods, (a cup of sugary cereal or a goopy cinnamon roll) may actually impair memory. Her explanation for this is that "a high carb dose provokes a big increase in cortisol, which is a stress hormone. If one is doing a challenging task, an increase in cortisol is known to impair memory." So the quality of your carbs is just as important as the quantity. Complex carbs such as whole grain breads or cereals play a key role in a healthy and balanced breakfast.

Glycemic index (GI) tells you how rapidly a carbohydrate turns into glucose. This value doesn't tell you, however, how much of that carbohydrate is in a serving of a particular food. The glycemic index has been studied to see if it can help control blood sugar for people with diabetes. Though many products have begun to tout their GI on food labels, there is some controversy about how these values are measured and interpreted.

GI Range
Low GI = 55 or less
Medium GI = 56 - 69
High GI = 70 or more

What's more important is the Glycemic load (GL) -- this tool uses the glycemic index and takes the amount of available carbohydrates into account. Available carbohydrates are those that provide energy, i.e. starch and sugar, but not fiber. The glycemic load measures the effect of the glycemic index of a food times its available carbohydrate content in grams in a standard serving. More information about these tools can be found at

GL Range
Low GL = 10 or less
Medium GL = 11- 19
High GL = 20 or more


Serving Size: 1/2 c
Glycemic Index: 119
Glycemic load: 13

Serving Size: 1 medium
Glycemic Index: 77
Glycemic Load: 19

Doughnut, cake
Serving Size: 4 in
Glycemic Index: 76
Glycemic Load: 26

Plain bagel:
Serving Size: 3 oz; 1 med
Glycemic Index: 72
Glycemic Load: 36

Serving Size: 1 Tbsp
Glycemic Index: 68
Glycemic Load: 9

Pineapple, diced
Serving Size: 1/2 cup
Glycemic Index: 66
Glycemic Load: 6

Serving Size: 2 Tbsp
Glycemic Index: 64
Glycemic Load: 10

Serving Size: 1 Tbsp
Glycemic Index: 55
Glycemic Load: 9

Apple with peel
Serving Size: 1 medium
Glycemic Index: 54
Glycemic Load: 9

Serving Size: 1 medium
Glycemic Index: 42
Glycemic Load: 6

Orange Juice
Serving Size: 4 oz.
Glycemic Index: 53
Glycemic Load: 6

Fat-free Milk
Serving Size: 1 cup
Glycemic Index: 32
Glycemic Load: 4

3. Blood sugar control -- Regular meal timing, starting with breakfast, is important for even blood sugar and to balance the peaks and valleys of our blood sugar throughout the day. Not only does even blood sugar help prevent diabetes, it provides more energy and better long-term health (including decreased risk of heart disease).

While blood sugar levels are highly regulated, with only minor fluctuations, our food choices (and timing) definitely have an impact on this balance. Sugary drinks or high-GI meals can cause more of a spike in blood sugar levels. According to Dr. Gibson,

"If you fast all day, your blood sugar would only show a slight decrease over the course of the day. This is because of action of counter-regulatory hormones such as glucagon, cortisol and adrenaline, which can influence blood glucose production, storage and uptake. So one way to think of hunger is as a neuro-hormonal signal to the brain that the body is having to work at maintaining blood glucose. At the same time, outside of the brain, most tissues start to receive an increased supply of free fatty acids, as stored fat is broken down, which, unlike the brain, they can use for energy."

This is an elegant and complex system whose mysteries are still being unraveled. What we do know for sure is that blood sugar control is a very good thing.

4. Energy -- Who doesn't want to have more energy? Whether you love working out, have an active lifestyle, or both, skipping breakfast can undermine your best efforts. Our bodies need fuel to power us through busy days and intense workouts. It all starts with breakfast. It's no surprise that studies show that breakfast eaters have more endurance and strength than breakfast skippers.

What's in it?

A healthy breakfast should consist of a variety of foods including complex carbs, lean proteins and good fats such as olive oil or a sprinkle of almonds on your yogurt, or a few slices of avocado on your breakfast burrito. Choose one item from at least three of the following four food groups:

  1. Dairy: Non- or low-fat cheese, milk, yogurt, cottage cheese or ricotta

  • Fruits and vegetables: Fresh whole fruits and vegetables (Yes, veggies at breakfast -- think omelettes or breakfast wraps!)
  • Grains: Whole-grain rolls, bagels, bread, tortillas, cereals or muffins
  • Protein: Eggs, lean turkey or chicken, smoked salmon
  • Fat: Olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocado
  • No time? No excuse.

    Here are some easy portable ideas:

    • Bran muffin and vanilla yogurt
    • Whole grain pita sandwich with one to two slices of lowfat cheese and an apple
    • Breakfast wrap (whole grain tortilla with scrambled egg, sprinkle of cheese and salsa)
    • Trail mix and 8 ounces of milk
    • Yogurt and granola
    • Multigrain bagel with a dab of cream cheese and a couple slices of smoked salmon
    • Smoothie made with high protein Greek-style yogurt
    • Peanut butter and jam sandwich on whole grain bread

    Extra tips:

    • Most packaged breakfast cereals are highly processed and loaded with added sugar. Choose packaged cereals with less than five grams of sugar and at least five grams of fiber per serving.
  • When choosing bread, check out the label first. If the label says "enriched" it probably contains white flour, meaning it's low in fiber and nutrition. Choose breads with at least three grams of fiber per serving. The first ingredient listed should be "whole" wheat or "whole grain.
  • Warm Breakfast Grains with Dried Cherries and Toasted Pecans

    Yield: 3 cups; 6 (1/2-cup) servings

    In this unusual whole grain dish, coarse ground bulgur takes a sweet turn. A warm and satisfying breakfast dish, it makes a delicious snack or dessert. This dish is loaded with fiber. Leftovers can be reheated.

    2 teaspoons olive oil
    1 cup coarse ground bulgur
    1 1/2 teaspoons peeled, finely minced fresh ginger
    2 1/4 cups 1 percent lowfat milk plus extra for serving
    2 tablespoons agave nectar or dark honey
    3-inch cinnamon stick
    1 cup chopped dried cherries
    1/3 cup slivered almonds or other nuts, toasted (see Note below)

    Heat oil in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add bulgur and ginger to pan and toast lightly, stirring occasionally, for about three minutes.

    Carefully add milk and agave nectar and stir well. Add cinnamon stick and heat mixture over medium-high heat, but do not boil. Reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid is absorbed, but grains are still loose and creamy, about 13 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in cherries and nuts.

    Serve warm, passing additional hot milk and cherries if desired.

    Note: To toast nuts in the oven, preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the nuts on a baking sheet in a single layer and bake for five to eight minutes, or until fragrant. Stir nuts a few times during baking to ensure even browning. To toast on the stovetop, place nuts in small sauté pan over medium heat. Toast nuts, stirring occasionally, until fragrant and lightly browned, about two minutes. Set aside to cool.

    Banana Fudge Smoothie

    Creamy and delicious, this smoothie is great for breakfast or a midday pick-me-up.

    Yield: 3 cups; 3 servings

    1 1/2 cups very cold 1% lowfat milk
    1/2 cup plain non fat Greek-style yogurt
    2 ripe medium bananas, frozen and cut into 1-inch chunks
    2 tablespoons unsweetened natural cocoa powder
    1 teaspoon agave nectar or dark honey

    Combine all ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend until smooth. Pour into glasses and serve immediately.

    For more by Cheryl Forberg, RD, on The Huffington Post, click here.

    For more on diet and nutrition, click here.

    For more by Cheryl Forberg, RD, click here.

    Cheryl Forberg, RD is a James Beard award-winning chef, former nutritionist for NBC's "The Biggest Loser" and NYT bestselling author. Her latest book is Flavor First (Rodale). She lives on a farm in Napa, California. For plenty of scrumptious whole grain (and other) recipes, check out her website or follow her on Twitter or Facebook

    Flickr photo by George M. Groutas

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