Breakfast is often called the most important meal of the day for good reason. It helps you regulate your appetite, prevent blood sugar swings and fills you up on all the essential nutrients to start your day off right.
If you’re looking for healthy breakfast foods, experts say to avoid sugary cereals at the grocery store, fresh pastries from the corner coffee shop and easy grab-n-go options at your favorite bodega. They may be luring you into a tasty trap laced with high amounts of added sugars, calories, refined grains and unhealthy saturated fats.
Regularly consuming these unhealthy ingredients can lead to weight gain and increased risks for high cholesterol, diabetes, chronic inflammation and heart disease.
To make breakfast as healthy as possible, look for the same good foods to eat that you’d have for lunch or dinner, including vegetables, nuts and seeds and some dairy foods, for instance.
Think about those categories as you plan your breakfast. The following superstar food choices can help get you started:
— Blackberries and blueberries.
— Ground hemp, chia or flax seeds.
— Healthy leftovers.
— Leafy greens.
— Nut butters.
— Oat bran.
— Plain Greek yogurt.
— Steel-cut oatmeal or oat bran.
— Whole-grain bread.
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Also known as “alligator pears,” avocados provide heart-healthy unsaturated fat that’s often missing from typical Western diets. The fruits are packed with lots of potassium, folate and vitamins E, C, A and K, as well as fiber, which promotes gut health and helps control blood sugar. But that’s not all.
“Avocados also contain the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which may help to protect our eyes from harmful light waves (i.e., the blue light from our computer screens) that can harm our vision,” says Gabrielle Gambino, a registered dietitian with Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City.
That means you get extra protection for your eyes with avocados.
A whole medium avocado contains:
— Fat:22 grams (15 grams of monounsaturated fat, 4 grams of polyunsaturated fat and 3 grams of saturated fat).
— Fiber:10 grams.
— Protein:3 grams.
Low in sodium and free of cholesterol, these superfoods are also versatile and widely available. Avocados are available year-round and can be purchased fresh in the produce section or frozen in the freezer aisle of the grocery store.
As versatile and yummy as avocados are, be mindful of how much you’re consuming if you live with kidney disease, cautions Anna Chew, a registered dietitian and vice president of nutrition services at Fresenius Kidney Care in San Diego. They’re high in potassium, and those with kidney disease may have trouble keeping their potassium levels balanced if eating them too much.
Here are a few breakfast ideas with avocados:
— Avocado chunks in a morning omelet.
— Mashing avocado and spreading it on toast. You can also combine mashed avocado with white beans to spread it on the toast, says Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian nutritionist and a partner with California Walnuts and Sunsweet Growers who’s based in New York City.
— Blending avocado in a green smoothie with kale, bananas, milk and a little honey.
[READ: Healthy Carbs to Eat.]
Blackberries and blueberries
Not to be fooled by their size, these small but mighty fruits pack a powerful nutritional punch with their high fiber, vitamin C, vitamin K, manganese and potassium content.
Blackberries andblueberries are also loaded with antioxidants that support body function at a cellular level. Some of these antioxidants include lutein and zeaxanthin carotenoids, which can promote eye health, and resveratrol, which has been a growing research area of interest for its potential anti-aging and anti-cancer effects.
One cup (5.2 ounces) of fresh blueberries contains:
— Fat:0.5 grams.
— Carbohydrates:21.4 grams (including 3.6 grams of fiber and 14.7 grams of natural sugars).
— Protein:1.1 gram.
— Potassium:114 milligrams.
— Vitamin C:14 milligrams.
— Manganese:0.6 milligrams
— Vitamin K:29 micrograms.
One cup (5.1 ounces) of fresh blackberries contains:
— Fat:0.7 grams.
— Carbohydrates:14.7 grams (including 7.6 grams of fiber and 7 grams of natural sugars).
— Protein:2 grams.
— Potassium:233 milligrams.
— Vitamin A:310 milligrams.
— Vitamin C:30 milligrams.
Enjoy either berry in a hot or cold cereal, yogurt, a morning smoothie or in whole-grain pancakes or muffins.
“Cooked blackberries make a delicious syrup. Just put them in a little water and bring them to a boil. Try to stick to about a cup of blackberries per serving,” says Dana Hunnes, a senior clinical dietitian at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.
As you use fruits and vegetables for your healthy breakfasts, don’t forget that you also can use frozen produce, Cassetty says. This is useful when a certain produce item isn’t in season or you can’t find it fresh. Frozen fruits and veggies are just as healthy as their fresh counterparts. Plus, they’re more budget-friendly, Cassetty adds. Look for frozen versions that don’t have added sugars or salt.
Whole-grain carbohydrates help fuel the brain for the morning, and buckwheat is brimming with healthy carbs and other important nutrients. Buckwheat seeds come from flowering plants that are then ground into small pieces that can be enjoyed in the form of hot cereal or as a powder for baking flour.
“Buckwheat is a high-fiber, gluten-free alternative to white [refined] flour. Buckwheat is also a good source of magnesium and B vitamins like thiamine, folate and niacin,” says Kristin Gustashaw, an advanced clinical dietitian with Rush University Medical Center in Chicago.
A quarter cup (45 grams) of buckwheat contains:
— Fat:1.5 grams.
— Carbohydrates:32.3 grams (including 4.5 grams of fiber).
— Protein:6 grams.
— Iron:1 milligram.
— Potassium:207 milligrams.
The grain has a nutty, sometimes bitter taste, but the flavor is more palatable when it’s roasted or combined with other ingredients. For example:
— Mix buckwheat with other whole-grain flours (such as whole-wheat or brown rice) to make flavorful pancakes or muffins.
— Cook a mixture of buckwheat cereal with brown rice or quinoa for a hot porridge.
Top buckwheat dishes with sweet or savory toppings, such as chopped nuts, fresh or dried fruit and a little honey, or top with shredded cheese, chicken chunks and balsamic vinegar or a drizzle of olive oil.
Coffee is sometimes villainized as a morning vice but the truth is, it can be a healthy addition to your breakfast if you’re not adding a lot of extra ingredients to it.
“It could be the healthiest bad behavior out there,” Cassetty says.
Coffee may help improve short- and long-term memory, according to several studies. Plus, the caffeine in coffee is a stimulant, so it can help you feel more focused and alert. Of course, you don’t want to overdo that. If you’re new to drinking coffee, start with one cup to see how it affects you before working up to a max of four cups a day. Cut your coffee intake by lunchtime to avoid any effects by the evening.
Don’t worry if you have to stick to decaf as the health benefits are similar to regular coffee, minus the caffeine.
If you add a lot of sugar, syrups or milks to coffee, that can cut down on the beverage’s health effects, Cassetty cautions. Aim for no more than 1 to 2 teaspoons of sugar (4 to 8 grams) if you don’t want to drink it black. This includes reading the labels of any products you use in coffee to check for sugar amounts.
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Eggs are nutrient-dense and high in all of the essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein, that keep your hunger at bay and provide fuel for your musclesand organs early in the day.
“Amino acids also support optimal brain signaling and hormone regulation. In general, high protein foods maximize blood sugar control, particularly if we pair them with carbohydrate-rich items in our first meal of the day, such as eggs and whole-wheat toast,” Gambino says.
One large egg contains:
— Fat:5 grams.
— Carbohydrates:Less than one gram.
— Protein:6 grams.
Eggs are also rich in minerals, such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potassium; vitamins, such as B and D vitamins; and other nutrients, such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Stick with hard-boiled or poached eggs instead of frying them, which is less healthy.
Here are a few ways to enjoy eggs at breakfast time:
— On top of an avocado half or oatmeal.
— Cooked into an omelet with eggs and veggies.
— Add one or two extra egg whites when cooking two eggs, to add protein and keep you fuller longer.
— Make egg salad avocado toast, which involves mashing an avocado and mixing in a hard-boiled egg before you spread it on whole-grain toast, suggests Chew.
One of the best foods to eat in the morning is ground seeds, particularly ground hemp, chia or flaxseeds.
“Seeds are excellent sources of plant-based protein, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, iron, calcium and potassium,” Gustashaw says.
One tablespoon of ground flaxseed, for example, contains:
— Calories: 37.
— Fat:3 grams of healthy unsaturated fat.
— Carbohydrates:2 grams (including 2 grams of fiber).
— Protein:1.3 grams.
— Magnesium:27 micrograms.
— Calcium:18 milligrams.
— Lutein and zeaxanthin:45 micrograms.
Gustashaw recommends adding ground seeds to:
— Hot cereals.
— Avocado toast.
— Whole-grain pancake or muffin batter.
If you favor savory breakfasts, leftovers from a nutritious dinner the night before make a healthy choice. Whether it’s baked salmon with quinoa and broccoli, a vegetable stir-fry and brown rice or roasted chicken and sautéed spinach and roasted sweet potatoes, you can give these meals a second life by enjoying them the next morning.
“There’s no wrong time to eat certain foods,” Gustashaw says. “If a food is packed full of nutrition, breakfast is a good time to eat it and it will give you a powerful start to your day.” Chew is also a fan of being adventurous and eating foods that are not traditional to breakfast.
Gustashaw also advises repurposing leftovers to make interesting new breakfast dishes. Options include turning last night’s roasted vegetables into an omelet or wrapping it in a whole-grain tortilla for an on-the-go meal.
When you think of breakfast, you may not immediately think of leafy greens. But leafy greens can actually make for an easy addition to your breakfast, and you can easily slip them into other foods you’re eating.
Some examples of leafy greens to add to your breakfast include:
— Romaine lettuce.
Leafy greens provide benefits like folate, lutein and vitamins A and C. Greens also may help protect your brain, according to a 2018 study published in the journal Neurology. Over an average 4 ½ year period in the study, a daily serving of leafy greens protected memory and cognitive abilities comparable to people 11 years younger.
Here are a few ways to add leafy greens to your morning meals:
— Add a fistful to an omelet.
— Add a cup of spinach or kale to a smoothie.
— Place arugula on top of avocado toast, Cassetty suggests.
You don’t have to wait until dinner to eat mushrooms. These delicious fungi are high in fiber and are a rich source of plant-based protein, but they’re also good for the gut — they can act as prebiotics that fuel good bacteria in the GI tract. That helps promote good gut health and improve blood sugar control.
A cup of raw chopped portabella mushrooms contains lots of phosphorus, potassium, folate and calcium as well as:
— Fat:0.3 grams.
— Carbohydrates:3 grams (including 1 gram of fiber and 2 grams of natural sugar).
— Protein:2 grams.
Add raw mushrooms to a smoothie for an extra nutrition boost and a taste you’ll hardly notice. Or sauté mushrooms to add a savory flavor and texture to an omelet.
Nut butters are made of ground peanuts or ground tree nuts — such as almonds, cashews, pistachios, pine nuts and walnuts. While they’re a staple of lunch and snacks, nut butters are perfect for breakfast too, whether on your whole-grain toast or mixed into a smoothie, oatmeal or whole-grain pancake mix.
A nut butter’s superpower comes from its main ingredients (nuts or peanuts), which are associated with lower body mass and reduced risks for developing chronic diseases, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. They’re rich in protein and fiber, which keep you full, plus lots of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals.
Two tablespoons of almond butter, for instance, contains:
— Fat: 18 grams (including 2 grams of saturated fat and 16 of grams unsaturated fat)
— Carbohydrates:6 grams (including 3 grams of fiber and 2 grams of sugar).
— Protein:7 grams.
— Calcium:111 milligrams .
However, it’s important not to overdo it due to their high fat content. Plus, nut butter’s health benefits can be derailed quickly if it includes unhealthy ingredients like sugar. Nut butters are good for you when consumed in moderation; a serving size is 2 tablespoons.
“You want to avoid nut butters made with added sugar and palm or fractionated oils. It’s easy to spot them because those are usually the nut butters that are pre-stirred,” Hunnes says. “Look for the ones you have to mix.”
Oatmeal or oat bran
Steel-cut oats are whole oat kernels, or oat groats, that have been chopped into smaller pieces. They’re packed with beneficial fiber (about 5 grams in a quarter cup of dry oats), namely beta-glucan. That’s a type of fiber found in barley, oats, mushrooms and several other foods.
“It provides sustained, stable energy from complex carbs. That’s important in the morning, so you’ll feel fuller longer and you won’t get an energy crash an hour after eating,” Gambino says. “Beta-glucan also improves cholesterol levels, helping to clear the arteries of potential plaques that could otherwise lead to complications down the road.”
Another oat choice: oat bran, the oat groats’ outer shell.
“Oat bran is awesome for people who don’t like the texture of oatmeal (flattened, steamed oat groats) or steel-cut oats. And for the same amount of calories, you get double the potassium, phosphorus and magnesium; a third more calcium and thiamin; and about 40% more iron than you would in steel-cut oatmeal,” Gustashaw says.
A 3.5-ounce serving of cooked oat bran contains:
— Protein:3 grams.
— Fiber:3 grams.
Both oat bran and steel-cut oats are a good base for all kinds of sweet or savory flavors. If you don’t have steel-cut oats or oat bran, you also can use regular oatmeal for similar benefits. Just steer clear of instant oatmeal already prepared with sugar. Cassetty has seen instant single-serve packages of oatmeal with 14 grams of sugar, similar to that in a small candy bar. “I’d rather see someone add a teaspoon of sweetener than eat something that has more sugar than a small candy bar,” she says.
Overnight oats that combine blueberries, steel-cut oatmeal, plain Greek yogurt and walnuts are a terrific way to combine several healthy breakfast foods, Chew says. The fiber this breakfast provides can help lower your risk for stroke, coronary heart disease and high blood pressure, she adds. Try adding cinnamon and nutmeg to boost flavors.
Plain Greek yogurt
Yogurt is heated milk that gets combined with two types of “good” bacteria and then is left to ferment for a few hours. During that time, milk sugars change into lactic acid, which is thicker than milk and has a sharp flavor. This dairy product is a creamy, protein- and calcium-rich breakfast staple for many people.
Try to avoid yogurt with added sugars. Instead, go for plain Greek yogurt, a strained, thicker type of yogurt that’s higher in protein with less sugar than the regular variety. Packed with calcium, potassium and probiotics, Greek yogurt is a versatile and nutritious choice that promotes good gut health and helps control your appetite.
A half a cup of plain nonfat Greek yogurt contains:
— Fat:0.3 grams of fat.
— Carbohydrates:4 grams (including 3 grams of natural sugar).
— Protein:10 grams.
— Calcium:111 milligrams.
Enjoy Greek yogurt with fruit, nuts, honey or ground seeds mixed into it. Or, add a dollop of Greek yogurt as you scramble eggs or make whole-grain pancakes or muffins.
Prunes are due for an image makeover. While sometimes overlooked, nutrition experts hail them for their health benefits, including at breakfast time. A 2022 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that five to six prunes eaten daily by postmenopausal women helped to preserve bone mass and reduce fracture risk.
— Calories (four prunes):90.
— Fat:0 grams.
— Carbohydrates:24 grams.
— Protein:10 grams.
— Calcium:20 milligrams.
— Potassium: 280 milligrams.
Even though it’s just 2% of our recommended daily calcium intake, the calcium contained in prunes is important as 40% of Americans don’t get their recommended intake of calcium through the foods they eat, according to Oregon State University.
Consider adding prunes with your other healthy breakfast choices, such as in oatmeal dishes. Or, sprinkle them over whole-grain toast with nut butter. You also can enjoy them as a pre-breakfast workout snack.
Tofu is a thick, flavorless product of soybean curds that takes on the flavors of other foods and spices you pair with it. It comes in crumbles or blocks that are soft, medium firm or firm, and its texture makes it a popular substitute for eggs or meat.
Tofu is a great breakfast food because it’s a rich source of plant-based protein to help keep you full in the morning, and it contains many other nutrients such as folate (a B vitamin), choline (an essential nutrient) and minerals such as zinc, potassium, phosphorus and selenium.
A 3.5-ounce serving of firm tofu also contains:
— Fat:4 grams.
— Carbohydrates:3 grams (including 1 gram of fiber).
— Protein:9 grams.
— Calcium:200 milligrams.
To incorporate tofu into a healthy breakfast, cut it into small chunks and add it to vegetables for a veggie scramble. Or, add it to a breakfast burrito or smoothies, Hunnes says.
In addition to nut butters, a simple handful of nuts will add crunch, flavor and nutrients to your breakfast.
Walnuts in particular will help give your cardiovascular system a healthy start in the morning. The nuts are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which are powerhouses for the heart and blood vessels. Daily walnut consumption also may help improve your mental health and well-being, according to a trial focused on academic stress that was published in the journal Nutrients.
An ounce of walnuts contains:
— Fat:18.5 grams (1.7 grams saturated fat, 13.4 polyunsaturated fat and 2.5 grams of monounsaturated fat).
— Carbohydrates:3.9 grams (including 2 grams of fiber).
— Protein:4.3 grams.
— Calcium:28 milligrams.
— Potassium:125 milligrams
Walnuts are also loaded with vitamin E, folate and magnesium. A few ways to enjoy walnuts in the morning include:
— Baking them with a little honey for a sweet, crunchy yogurt topping.
— Adding them to overnight oats, smoothie bowls and yogurt parfaits.
— Grabbing a handful to take with you for an easy morning snack.
Whole grains are those that haven’t been refined to remove the outer shell (bran) or nutrient-rich germ (or embryo) inside the grain.
Examples of whole grains include:
Made into breads, whole grainsare handy breakfast foods that are portable and easy to prepare. They’re also full of nutrients such as fiber, protein and B vitamins.
One slice of whole-wheat bread contains:
— Fat:1 gram.
— Carbohydrates:14.3 grams (including 1.2 grams of fiber and 1.8 grams of sugar).
— Protein:3 grams.
— Calcium:40 milligrams.
For a nutritious breakfast, pair a slice or two of whole-grain bread with an egg, half an avocado, nut butter or a slice of your favorite cheese.
To get the healthiest whole-grain breads, you’ll have to read the ingredient label.
“Make sure each grain has the word ‘whole’ next to it,” Hunnes advises. “And watch out for added sugars. Go for the bread with four grams (or fewer) added sugars per slice. That’s still one teaspoon of sugar, but it’s better than 8 grams or more that are common in bread.”
Some final tips on breakfast planning
As you plan your breakfast, aim for a balance of protein, fat and fiber. Envision a plate that can be filled with these suggested serving sizes and items as shared by Chew:
— 3 to 5 ounces of protein, or about the size of your palm.
— A half-cup of fruits and veggies, or the size of your cupped hand.
— One cup of bread or grains, which is about the size of your closed fist.
When you can, try to enjoy local and seasonal produce for a nutrient-packed healthy treat, Chew advises.
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The Best Healthy Foods to Eat for Breakfast originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 04/21/23: This piece was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.