If you find yourself in line for another iced coffee or nibbling on leftover office donuts at 10 AM, don’t blame your lack of willpower–blame your breakfast. With a little help from a balanced and wholesome mid-morning snack, breakfast should give you the energy to reach lunchtime; but many Americans feel famished and fatigued far before then. Take a look at your breakfast and make sure you’re not making these mistakes:
1. Not eating breakfast at all
According to a report from the USDA, 93% of American believe that breakfast is the most important meal of the day–but only 44% of Americans actually eat it! Breakfast jump starts your metabolism; without it, you’re fasting for 15-20 hours, which hinders the production of fat-metabolizing enzymes. But it does more than that: breakfast-eaters have lower cholesterol levels, feel more energized, perform better on cognition and memory tests, and have better blood sugar levels. And if you’re skipping breakfast to cut calories (or “save” them for later), heed this: people who skip breakfast are 4.5 times more likely than their breakfast-eating peers to be overweight. According to the National Weight Control Registry, which tracks people who have lost and maintained a 30 pound-or-more weight loss for over a year, 80% of their members eat breakfast every single day. If that’s not enough to convince you to start eating breakfast, consider this: according to a study from the Dairy Research Institute, those who skip breakfast consume 40% more sweets, 55% more soft drinks, 45% fewer vegetables, and 30% less fruit than those who ate their morning meal.
2. Not eating enough protein
Typical breakfast foods are made of refined carbohydrates: processed breakfast cereal, a bagel with jam, a muffin, a breakfast bar. But the convenience of these grab-and-go carbs is overshadowed by their lack of quality protein; at most, you’re likely getting 2-5 grams of incomplete protein. Adding just a little high-quality protein to your breakfast–a handful of nuts or a hardboiled egg, for example–might be the key to boosting your breakfast: research from the University of Missouri found that eating a high protein breakfast increases satiety and reduces cravings throughout the day. And even if you’re increasing the overall calorie content of your breakfast overall, it likely won’t hinder your diet efforts, either: people who eat a high-protein breakfast reportedly eat 200 fewer calories throughout the day. Look beyond eggs: add an ounce of smoked salmon to your English muffin (5.2 grams of protein), serve your cereal over one cup of cottage cheese (28 grams), or add some Canadian bacon to a breakfast sandwich (12 grams per two ounces).
3. Not eating enough fiber
Another nutrient that most of those cereals, bagels, and muffins are missing? Fiber. The three most commonly eaten breakfast cereals in America (Cheerios, Special K, and Honey Bunches of Oats) each have less than three grams of fiber per serving (Special K has zero grams!); bagels and muffins have even less. But fiber is just as important as protein in a healthy breakfast: it reduces hunger and boosts satiety by slowing the rate of digestion and maintaining steady blood sugar levels. Fiber has a myriad of other health benefits, too: it helps lower cholesterol levels, boosts digestive and cardiovascular health, and may reduce the risk of diabetes, stroke, and certain cancers. If your heart is set on cereal, look for brands with at least five grams of fiber. Keeping that in mind, look for naturally occurring or intact fibers, like those found in whole grains or oats. Avoid “isolated” or “functional” fibers, like polydextrose, inulin, oat fibers, or soy fibers, which have been extracted from plants or manufactured in a lab and may not carry the same health benefits. To get extra fiber outside of the cereal box, look to fruits, vegetables, whole oats and other grains, nuts, and seeds.
4. Not eating enough (or any) fat
You might be noticing a pattern at this point: that a healthy breakfast should include all three macronutrients (protein, high-fiber carbohydrates, and fat). Besides being absolutely necessary for everyday functioning (it’s a component of myelin, the material that sheaths nerve cells, as well as brain tissue, hormones and other biochemicals, and it helps protect our organs), fat is required for the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. But adding a little healthy fat to your diet boosts satiety: in addition to adding craving-crushing flavors and texture (you can thank fat for the creaminess of an egg yolk), it increases the amount of GLP-1, a gut hormone that increases fullness and suppresses appetite, in your blood. In a 2008 study published in the journal Appetite, overweight and obese volunteers who supplemented their diet with 1300 mg of omega-3 fatty acids experienced fewer hunger sensations immediately following and two hours after test meals. If you’re eating skim milk or nonfat yogurt now, switch over to 1 or 2%; the difference in calories is negligible, especially when you factor in the added satiety. Or simply add a handful of nuts or seeds (try flaxseed and chia seeds) to your favorite breakfast.
5. Not eating the right breakfast for you
According to a 2008 study, individuals who ate a 610-calorie breakfast shed more weight–and kept that weight off for longer–than individuals who ate a breakfast with 290 calories. But according to a 2011 study, all participants ate the same amount of calories later in the day, regardless of the amount of calories they had consumed at breakfast–meaning that those who ate a large breakfast consumed more calories overall. Either way, it seems like eating the right breakfast for your body is what’s key: just because a study says that a huge breakfast of bacon and eggs–or a light breakfast of blueberries and almonds–will aid in weight loss doesn’t meant that it’s the right breakfast for your lifestyle and body. So if it takes a 600-calorie breakfast to feel energized, go for it: just go for whole, unprocessed foods with a balance of protein, fiber, and fat, and think about downsizing your other meals. If you prefer light breakfasts, just make sure to eat enough to prevent cravings and overeating later in the day. And if you can’t stomach a big enough breakfast to keep you going until lunch, try eating two small breakfasts.