Tips for a Healthy Breakfast

An expert shares her secrets for a healthy breakfast and the key ingredients to start your day off right.

Pictures of breakfast ideas: oatmeal with berries and almonds, glasses of water, toast with eggs and tomato, toast with avocado, cereal with bananas and blackberries and two fruit smoothies

Some mornings, just getting out the door can feel like a Herculean task, and eating a nutritious breakfast can easily fall low on the list of priorities as you prepare for your day. An estimated 10 to 20% of adults in the United States skip breakfast, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There’s good reason to change that habit, according to Georgia Giannopoulos, a registered dietitian and manager of NYPBeHealthy, NewYork-Presbyterian’s health and wellbeing program.

“Think about it as giving yourself the nourishment that you know your body is going to need throughout the day and charging yourself up before you start,” says Giannopoulos. “You wouldn’t leave the house with your phone on less than 10%, right? So why would you do that to yourself?”

Giannopoulos shared with Health Matters five simple tips for a breakfast routine that will help get your day off to a healthy start.

Tip #1: Start With Water

Step 1 to a healthy breakfast doesn’t even involve food. Water is an essential component to our health, and one large glass of water in the morning gets you closer to your hydration goal that day.

“Something that a lot of people don’t think about when they think about breakfast is hydration,” says Giannopoulos. “When you’re sleeping, your body’s losing fluids, so one of the most important things someone can do when they wake up is replenish themselves with water.”

Giannopoulos recommends keeping a refillable water bottle by your bed, or a glass of water by the bathroom sink or the coffee machine to prompt yourself, “so that first thing in the morning, you wake up, you drink water. And after a while, it becomes a habit, and you don’t even have to think about it.” Plus, water will help you feel less groggy, even before you pour that first cup of coffee. “If you’re dehydrated, you’re not able to think 100% clearly,” says Giannopoulos.

Tip #2: Focus on Fiber

Starting your day with a fiber-rich breakfast can give you a head start on reaching the recommended daily intake of 28 grams, which most Americans are not getting.

One good source of fiber is oatmeal. “Oats are a phenomenal source of fiber, and the type of fiber they provide has actually been shown to help someone lower their cholesterol levels,” says Giannopoulos. “If someone has higher LDL cholesterol — the lousy type — introducing oatmeal into your routine could be helpful.”

Instant oats, rolled oats, and steel cut oats are great options, but check the labels to make sure there isn’t too much added sugar or other ingredients you don’t need.

It’s also important to like the flavor, Giannopoulos says, so that you keep it in your routine, “otherwise, you are not going to stick with it.” She suggests making a simple overnight oats recipe by mixing rolled oats with ingredients like fruit, chia or flax seeds (other good sources of fiber), and milk and putting it in a sealed container in the refrigerator to eat in the morning chilled or warmed up. A big batch of rolled oats bought in bulk is also friendly to your budget.

If you’re not a fan of oats, other options include frozen whole grain waffles, whole grain cereals, or a whole grain piece of toast with some avocado. Like oats, check the labels to make sure “whole grain” is the first item.

Tip #3: Pack in Protein

Top your toast or waffle with some peanut butter or an egg for a critical component of a healthy diet, protein. “Protein and fiber will help sustain you and keep you satisfied as you start your day,” says Giannopoulos.

The FDA recommends about 50 grams of protein per day for the average adult, though your protein needs can vary depending on your size, age, and the amount you exercise. You can input your information into a calculator from the United States Department of Agriculture to find out your daily dietary needs.

Eggs are one of Giannopoulos’s favorite proteins. “An egg is a complete protein that you can enjoy so many different ways,” she says. Other examples of protein include peanut butter, milk, nuts, or yogurt (again, check the labels for too many additives or sweetener). Yogurt with live and active cultures also contains probiotics, which aid your gut health.

Tip #4: Remember Fruits and Vegetables

The American Heart Association recommends five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. “I like to knock at least one of those servings out at breakfast,” says Giannopoulos. Bananas are easy and quick additions to breakfast – eat one on its own or slice one on top of cereal or oatmeal. Depending on the size of the banana, it could count as two servings.

Keep frozen fruit on hand for a convenient and budget-friendly boost. Giannopoulos adds frozen cherries to Greek yogurt, which slowly defrost in the yogurt and sweetens it. “Frozen fruit is convenient because I don’t always have time to stock my kitchen with fresh fruits and vegetables,” she says. You can also add frozen fruit to oatmeal or use it to make a delicious breakfast smoothie.

Five servings of fruits and vegetables a day can help reduce your risk of death from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and respiratory illness, according to an observational study published in Circulation, which looked at health and diet information from dozens of studies around the world. Interestingly, the benefit to your health plateaus at five servings – eating more than five daily servings didn’t correlate with a lower risk of early death.

Tip #5: Reframe Your Approach to Breakfast

Breakfast doesn’t have to look like… breakfast. “You could really eat whatever’s going to give you the nourishment,” says Giannopoulos. “If you go out to eat the night before, consider the leftovers for breakfast if you’re in the mood.”

Giannopoulos encourages people to consider looking at breakfast as a special time for themselves before they start the day. “It’s a way to pause and do something for yourself before you start doing things for everyone else.”

If a healthy breakfast feels like a daunting task, start by setting small goals. “Just reflecting on what small steps you can take,” says Giannopoulos. If you aren’t eating breakfast at all in the morning, maybe your goal can be to eat breakfast once or twice a week to start, and gradually build up to seven days. Or if you’re not drinking water, start by focusing on that.

“Before you know it, it’s a habit and ingrained: hydration, protein, dietary fiber and some fruits and vegetables,” says Giannopoulos. “If you just think of those basic concepts, you’ll be able to build a healthy plate before you know it.”

Building Blocks for a Smoothie

Smoothies are a simple and delicious way to the nutrients you need to fuel you for the day. The best part: you don’t need to follow a strict recipe. Mix and match these elements to your taste.

Fruit: 1 cup fresh or frozen banana, berries, oranges, kiwi, mango, peaches, pineapple
Vegetables: 2 cups of spinach, kale, carrots, beets, celery, sprouts, arugula, cucumber, zucchini, bok choy, or sweet potato.
Liquid: 1/2 to 1 cup plant-based milk, water, or Greek yogurt
Extra flavor: 1 to 2 teaspoons of honey, ginger, herbs, vanilla extract, cinnamon, or cocoa powder
Boosts to stay full longer: 1 to 2 tablespoons of nut butter, flax seeds, chia seeds, oats, nuts, or avocado

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