The Importance of a Healthy Breakfast

You might think you're too busy for breakfast, or that the sugary cereal you eat every morning is fine, but think again. A nutritious breakfast is a key element in a healthy eating plan.

Eating a meal first thing in the morning is traditional across all cultures of the world, and here in Australia we have a wealth of ways to eat healthy breakfasts every day.

Yet the idea that breakfast is essential to a healthy lifestyle polarises many people, with some seeing it as the least important of our three main meals.

A healthy breakfast is the perfect way to set you up for the day, and it doesn't take much effort.

But some of us skip this meal altogether in our rush to be out the door and on the way to work. Or we eat a breakfast that contains few nutrients, is high in salt and sugar and is laden with unnecessary calories.

Why are Healthy Breakfasts so Important?

If you're trying to shape up or live more healthily, skipping breakfast won't help your cause.

Why not? Because a healthy breakfast provides essential nutrients and gives us the energy we need to power through the morning.

After all, we've been asleep for between six and eight hours, which is when the body heals and rejuvenates, and it's been a long time since our last meal.

"Skipping breakfast sets us up for failure," says 12WBT dietitian Georgie Moore.

"If we don't eat something nutritious in the morning, by 10am most of us will be very hungry, finding it hard to concentrate and we'll feel like we need a bit in caffeine or has a high glycaemic index (GI).

"As a result, we'll feel better for a short time but quickly return to that state of hunger and lack of concentration, and that pattern can often continue for the entire day."

In addition, many people think that not consuming any calories in the morning will help them help them lose weight quickly, but numerous studies have shown the opposite is true.

In a review of research carried out around the world, the dietary organisation PEN (Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition) found that people who skip breakfast are more likely to be overweight or obese.

"Consuming breakfast is also associated with reducing the amount of weight gained over time," it reported.

What Not to Eat

Contrary to a lot of advertising, many so-called healthy breakfast foods are actually the opposite.

Some breakfast cereals contain huge amounts of sugar, setting us up with an energy high, only to leave us looking for another sugary fix later in the morning.

Better options are bran-based cereals or those based on wheat or corn flakes, with little sugar or salt added.

If you're the kind of person who grabs a muffin or banana bread on the way to work, bear in mind that you're basically eating cake for breakfast - they're full of sugar and fat.

The average slice of banana bread contains 400 calories, and that's before the butter.

Meanwhile, a cooked breakfast can come with an equally heavy price for your body to pay - unless you choose a healthy option.

Healthy Options

For a healthy breakfast that's going to kick-start your metabolism and truly sustain you until the next time you eat, include key building blocks such as protein, wholegrain carbohydrates, healthy fats and fruit or vegetables.

Try the following options for a meal that will keep your stomach quiet for the rest of the morning.

  • Protein: poached or boiled eggs, low-fat yoghurt or milk, or a handful of nuts sprinkled over oats in a home-made muesli.
  • Wholegrain carbohydrates: wholemeal toast, wholemeal English muffins or oats.
  • Fruit: try fruit salad or sliced banana or apple added to home-made muesli or low-fat yoghurt. Raw fruit is better than dried. "Dried fruit is a concentrated source of sugar, and so there's very little 'fill' factor for the amount of energy you're consuming," says Georgie.
  • Vegetables: spinach and grilled tomatoes are great with poached eggs on wholemeal toast. Also try kale or asparagus spears. Avoid potatoes, as they are high GI and are usually fried (e.g. hash browns) when served with a cooked breakfast, which is bad for your heart.
  • Healthy fats: avocado on wholemeal toast, sliced avocado with a cooked breakfast, or peanut butter on wholemeal crackers. "Just make sure you choose a peanut butter that's low in sugar and salt," says Georgie.

I Don't Have Time!

For many people, eating in the morning seems like an Herculean task, given that this is when they feel stressed, rushed and focused on getting the kids to school or to work on time - or both!

Here's how to make life easier:

  • Form a habit. There's nothing wrong with eating the same breakfast most days of the week. Find something healthy you enjoy and stick to it. That way the decision will become automatic.
  • Set your alarm 20 minutes earlier and enjoy a relaxed breakfast at home.
  • Not a morning person? Prepare breakfast ingredients before you go to bed to speed things up. Lay out everything you need - pans, plates, bowls, teapot etc - as a reminder.
  • Take your breakfast to work or keep the ingredients there: home-made muesli, wholemeal crackers, Vegemite, avocados and hard-boiled eggs are all items that can be carried with you or stored at work. Even scrambled eggs prepared at home can be cooked or reheated in a microwave.
  • If you can't bear the thought of eating in the morning, blend a banana with skim milk and oats to make a healthy smoothie. But beware of relying too much on 'liquid foods'.
  • "Be mindful that the body doesn't register fullness from liquid calories in the same way as it does calories eaten," Georgie says. In other words, downing that smoothie won't make you feel full, but at least it will provide good nutrients.

If you'd like some new breakfast recipes, the 12WBT member site has plenty.

And for more information see our article on healthy eating habits.

The Pitfalls of Cafés

Brunch with friends on the weekend is a great way to socialise, but while café food is often wholesome, it can be hard to know which breakfast options are healthiest.

The following list will give you an idea of what to choose. (The calories quoted are approximate and depend on serving size.)

Savoury Craving?

  • A full cooked breakfast of two fried eggs, bacon, two small sausages, grilled tomato, mushrooms, two slices of toast and a hash brown could contain up to 1200 calories, as well as heaps of salt and saturated fat from the sausages and bacon - and that's a recipe for heart disease.

  • A breakfast of eggs benedict, served on an English muffin with smoked salmon, seems like a great choice but could contain up to 950 calories - or more once you've added the Hollandaise sauce. Replace the salmon (around 100 calories) with bacon (around 400 calories) and you could be looking at more than 1200 calories.

  • On the other hand, a cooked breakfast of two poached eggs, lean ham, avocado, grilled tomato and two slices of wholegrain toast contains only around 500 calories, and will leave you feeling satisfied but not overfull.

Fancy something sweet?

  • Pancakes are a popular choice, but if you like them with maple syrup, ice-cream and perhaps some whipped cream, you're looking at around 1000 calories. Skip the ice-cream and whipped cream and you're still consuming 750 calories, a lot of sugar and very few nutrients.
  • Muesli with yoghurt can be healthy, but in a café the yoghurt will often be full-fat. Muesli is also likely to contain a lot of dried fruit, which is concentrated sugar. Toasted muesli will have been coated in oil or honey and then fried. Natural and bircher mueslis are nutritious, but again, the milk and yoghurt needs to be low fat.
  • The ideal sweet option is fruit salad. Depending on the serving size, you could be consuming just 300 calories and loading up on vitamins, nutrients and fibre.
    If you can't resist the full-fat Greek yoghurt, ask for it on the side and add only a little to your bowl. A full serving of sweetened yoghurt can contain 200 to 300 calories and lots of saturated fat.

Finally, check out our ideas for healthy snacks and how a food diary can help you reach your goals.