Start the New Year right by resolving to start your day with a healthy breakfast.
Its not an exaggeration at all to call breakfast the most important meal of the day, says Helen M. Rasmussen, PhD, RD, Senior Research Dietitian at Tufts HNRCA Metabolic Research Unit. For example, research shows that the frequency and quality of the breakfast a person eats contributes to the prevention of obesity.
Starting the day with a healthy breakfast helps stave off hunger for the rest of the day, when you might be tempted-or time-pressed-to gobble high-calorie, low-nutrient foods on the run. The right breakfast, such as one containing whole grains, contributes to better blood-sugar maintenance. Studies have even linked whole-grain breakfast cereals to a healthier heart.
Breakfast cereal was actually invented as health food. Its origins trace to the pro-vegetarian gospel of Seventh-Day Adventism, founded in Battle Creek, Mich., in 1863. One of the churchs founders, Ellen G. White, had been a patient in Dr. James Caleb Johnsons sanitarium in Dansville, NY. Johnson had invented a cereal he called Granula (as in granule): dense bran nuggets that had to be soaked overnight before serving. White may have taken this idea to Battle Creek, where fellow Adventist Dr. John Harvey Kellogg ran another sanitarium. In 1887, Dr. Kellogg developed a breakfast biscuit of oats, wheat and cornmeal, which he called Granula until a lawsuit made him rename it Granola.
There are hundreds of studies that have looked at how important breakfast is-especially for kids, but not just for kids, Rasmussen adds. Its also important for motivation in the morning, to get up and do things.
Breakfast and Your Belly
It might sound counterintuitive to suggest that eating can help you lose weight or keep from gaining weight, but thats what the science says about breakfast. In a Michigan State University study of 4,218 adults from the National Health Examination Survey, for instance, women who regularly ate breakfast were less likely to snack and fill up on fatty foods later in the day. Breakfast-eaters were also more likely to make healthy choices for the rest of the days meals.
What you choose for breakfast, obviously, makes a difference: In that study, women who breakfasted on ready-to-eat cereal were 30% less likely to be overweight than those who skipped breakfast-even when factors such as exercise and total daily calorie count were figured in. Women who started the day with cereal were also leaner than those who typically picked something else for breakfast.
Most recently (see page 8 in this issue), a study of successful dieters in the National Weight Control Registry reported that eating breakfast regularly was a key strategy in maintaining weight loss.
Whole-grain cereals can also help keep you from packing on pounds in the most dangerous place to carry extra weight-around your middle, where belly fat has been linked to greater risk of heart disease and diabetes. Tufts researchers led by Nicola McKeown, PhD, analyzed data on 2,834 adults from the renowned Framingham Heart Study and found an association between whole-grain consumption and reduced tendency toward belly fat. People who ate three or more daily servings of whole grains-such as one cup of whole-grain breakfast cereal or a half-cup of cooked oatmeal-averaged 10% lower fat around the abdominal organs.
Other whole-grain breakfast choices count, too, such as wheat germ sprinkled on your low-fat yogurt or whole-wheat toast. On the other hand, Tufts researchers found that eating more refined grains-including processed breakfast cereals, white toast, non-whole-grain bagels or muffins, waffles and pancakes-actually diminished the belly-fat-fighting benefits of whole grains.
Breakfast can be good for your heart, too. A daily serving of whole-grain breakfast cereal was associated with a 28% lower risk of heart failure in a Harvard analysis of data from the Physicians Health Study. The research followed 21,410 male physicians, average age 53.7 when the study began, for 24 years. Even in this population with generally healthy habits, researchers noted, the 38% eating whole-grain cereals at least daily showed lesser rates of heart failure. For purposes of the study, breakfast cereals with at least 25% oat or bran content were classified as whole grain.
A follow-up report on the Physicians Health Study data cited consumption of whole-grain breakfast cereals as one of six healthy lifestyle habits that can help prevent heart failure. So breakfast was right up there with eating fruits and vegetables, not smoking, regular exercise, moderate alcohol intake and maintaining a normal body weight.
Other studies have associated whole-grain consumption with a reduced rate of heart disease and a slower progression of plaque buildup in the arteries of heart patients. In Tufts research, women who ate more than three grams of cereal fiber or more than six servings of whole grains weekly showed a slower progression of atherosclerosis.
Beyond Coffee and Sugar
To enjoy the health benefits of breakfast, however, you may need to change your morning habits. Dont just consume coffee and sugar, advises Rasmussen. Eat actual food, such as whole grains, fruit and low-fat dairy. Skip the doughnuts and bear claws.
In moderation, a healthy breakfast can include that American morning staple, eggs. Says Rasmussen, Eggs are making a comeback. I personally love them. Although eggs are high in dietary cholesterol, research has shown that saturated fat is actually a more significant culprit in unhealthy blood cholesterol levels. Eggs are an inexpensive, easy-to-prepare source of protein and 13 important nutrients, while averaging only 70 calories apiece.
Inside Your Cereal Box
Ready-to-eat breakfast cereals can be a smart choice for a healthy breakfast, but picking the right one in the circus of colorful packages in the grocery store can prove challenging. Here we list key nutrition information for the bestselling breakfast cereals, along with some popular choices promoted as healthy-and plain oatmeal, for comparison. The cereals here are listed in descending order of fiber content, which is also generally a good indicator of whole grains. Weve also noted whether the first ingredient listed for each cereal is a whole grain, such as whole wheat, barley or oats; for this purpose, were not including rice or corn, cornmeal, corn flour or milled corn.
Besides fiber, nutrients listed here to look for are protein, potassium and B12. Those to look for less of are calories, sugar and sodium.
What about fat? Few cereals are a significant source of saturated fat. Of those listed here, only Quaker Natural Granola contains as much as one gram of saturated fat in three-quarters of a cup. Most contain no trans fat, and none have as much as a tenth of a gram.
Serving sizes on cereals Nutrition Facts panels can be confusing because they vary so widely, from half a cup to one and a quarter cups. Sometimes this is simply because smaller servings of dense cereals fill you up; other times it may be to inflate good nutrients or lowball calories and sugar. For easier comparison, weve calculated all cereals in this chart at a common three-quarter-cup serving.
Note, too, that all cereals are listed before adding milk and without any sweetener you might add. Keep in mind that every teaspoon of sugar contains 16 calories. Go easy on the bacon part of the traditional bacon and eggs breakfast duo, however. Bacon shouldnt be a daily habit, says Rasmussen. Besides being high in sodium (178 milligrams in a single slice), bacon and other processed meats have been linked to greater risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.
When shopping for ready-to-eat breakfast cereals, Rasmussen advises, Read the labels to know what youre really getting. Look for cereals with whole grains, less sugar and lower calories. For people over age 50, the vitamin B12 added to fortified cereals is more absorbable than that found naturally in food.
Especially in these cold-weather months, theres nothing like starting the day with a bowl of hot cereal, such as oatmeal. Cooking up your own hot cereal is great, says Rasmussen. Steelcut oats, which are good because they dont undergo a lot of milling, do take some time and planning, but they make a good, stick-to-your-ribs hot breakfast.
For two different ways to prepare a healthy steelcut-oats porridge, with nine different topping variations, see this issues recipe on page 7.
At breakfast time, theres nothing wrong with being stuck in a rut-think of it as a routine. Says Rasmussen, Stick with a few things that are good for you. I like the idea of a certain restraint at breakfast. It helps with weight control, including the mental aspect. Maybe you start every day with yogurt and wheat germ. If you set yourself up in the morning with things you control, then its easier to head out and manage the chaos of everyday life.
If you want an occasional treat at breakfast time on the weekend, thats OK, she adds. And if someone special wants to bring you breakfast in bed every now in then, well, why not? After all, its the most important meal of the day.