Breakfast on the Run: Thinking Outside the Box

Is your quick breakfast as healthy as you think?

Medically Reviewed by Kathleen M. Zelman, RD, LD, MPH on November 28, 2005
7 min read

Which of the following foods do you think constitutes a healthy breakfast?

  • A bran muffin
  • A supermarket smoothie
  • A cereal bar
  • A bowl of corn flakes

If you're like most folks, you probably think any of the above would be a pretty healthy way to start your day.

In truth, experts say, any of the four could be a less-than-optimal choice -- unless you know what to look for.

"A lot of times breakfast foods play on certain buzzwords that we have come to associate with good health, but you have to look at the whole picture -- everything a food contains -- before you can determine if it's really a good choice," says Miriam Pappo Klein, MS, RD, clinical nutrition manager at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

At the same time, studies show that it's vital to eat breakfast. Skipping it can lead to problems in both the short and the long run.

"Research shows that people who skip breakfast frequently consume a greater number of calories throughout the day than those who start the day with a meal," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.

Studies also report that those who eat breakfast think better, start their day in a better mood, and have more energy to burn, Heller says.

So what should you choose to start your day off on the right foot? Experts say there are plenty of choices -- if you learn think outside the box!

And, of course, your breakfast is just one part of your overall diet. If there's a certain breakfast item you love that's less than totally healthy, go for it. Just make sure your other food choices are wise ones. The most important thing is to start the day with something.

There's no question that Americans love their breakfast cereal. And experts agree that it can be one of the best ways to start your day.

"The breakfast that has been shown over and over to be the healthiest - and it's almost impossible to beat - is a bowl of whole-grain cereal, non-fat milk, and a piece of fruit," says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of the book "10 Habits That Mess Up aA Woman's Diet."

But not all cereals are alike, says Somer. Choosing the wrong one can mean you miss out on some of the nutritional payback. So what should you look for?

First on Somers' own list is fiber: "A good breakfast cereal should have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving or more," she says.

While we may be swayed by claims of vitamins and minerals, or by healthy-sounding phrases like "all -natural" or "multigrain," experts say these things have little meaning if the fiber isn't adequate.

Next, check the sugar and sodium content. Somer says the healthiest cereals have 4 grams of sugar or less per serving. Heller believesays the sodium should be under 200 grams per serving.

And, the experts remind us, don't overlook the fat content. Yes, there can be lots in some cereals. "Granola and other mixes can be loaded with palm and coconut oil -- not only high in fat, but also high in trans fat," says Somer. Her recommendation: choose cereals with no more than 2 grams of fat per serving.

While you may be tempted to munch your cereal dry during your drive to work, take five minutes at the breakfast table and add fresh or frozen fruit, and drench those flakes in skim or low-fat milk.

"Now you've got the perfect combo of protein and carbohydrate - the carbohydrates will fuel your brain and your muscles, the protein will keep you satiated - plus, if people don't have milk for breakfast, they hardly ever make up their calcium later in the day," says Somer.

If you're just not a cereal kind of person, you can find some healthful breakfast choices on the bakery aisle if you read the labels before you buy.

"This means not only paying attention to all the ingredients -- like sugar, sodium, and fat -- but also the calories as they pertain to the portion size," says Klein.

For example, while a bran muffin can be a good source of fiber, Somer says, a portion is 1 ounce. But the average muffin is 7 ounces.

"A lot of the good you get from the fiber, you can lose with the excess calories," says Somer.

Further, if the top of the muffin looks shiny, or if it leaves a slick taste in your mouth, chances are that the fat content is too high, she says.

If you're not sure how much a muffin weighs, experts say, don't eat more than half. Always skip the butter, and, whenever possible, choose a variety that is high in fiber (like bran or oat) and low in fat and sugar.

Heller tells WebMD that the same applies to a bagel breakfast.

"A whole-wheat bagel with some peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese can be a great 'take it with you' breakfast, but it becomes a bad choice if the bagel is something like 7 or 8 ounces," she says. (To put that into perspective, an 8-ounce bagel would measure about 4 _" in diameter.)

Again, if you don't know how much it weighs, eat only half, and embellish it with high-protein toppings like lox, peanut butter, or low-fat cheese.

And what about the classic continental breakfast of toast or an English muffin? Either can be a healthy choice, as long as you follow a few simple rules.

"First, make sure the bread is whole grain and the English muffin contains at least some whole grains," says Somer.

Next, skip the butter and jam and opt for almond, soy or any nut butter, or low-fat cottage cheese for protein (or try low-fat cream cheese).

You can swap out the toast for frozen waffles if you like, Heller says, but look for brands made with whole wheat, and with a minimum of sodium, sugar, and fat.

Among the latest breakfast crazes is the smoothie -- usually some combination of fruit, yogurt, and juice whipped in a blender to milkshake consistency.

While smoothies can be a healthy fare, the benefits may come to a screeching halt if you buy certain pre-made versions in a convenience or grocery store.

"Some of these supermarket smoothies have up to 20 teaspoons of sugar in each serving, and many of them have high fat content as well," says Somer.

Even smoothies you buy in a local diner or breakfast bar can be anything but healthy, Heller tells WebMD: "Some of them are made with ice cream -- full fat," she says.

Reading the labels can help you decide whether your smoothie is healthy or a high-calorie treat. But to be absolutely sure of what you're getting, Heller and Somer say, your best bet is to make smoothies at home.

"You can even make it the night before, store it in the refrigerator, and in the morning give it a 10-second whip, and you've got an instant healthy breakfast," says Somer.

Not quite as decadent-seeming as a smoothie, but just as good, is a bowl of yogurt. Grabbing a carton will add protein, calcium, and other nutrients to your diet. And to help lower the fat and calories, Somer suggests, you can buy an unflavored low-fat or no-fat type, then add fruit, honey, or jam on your own.

"There can be up to 9 teaspoons of sugar in a fruit yogurt," Somer says. "You are never going to put in as much as what is done for commercial preparation, so flavoring it yourself is going to be a lot healthier."

When it comes to '"out the door'" breakfasts, perhaps nothing is faster or easier than a cereal bar. But experts say these generally leave a lot to be desired.

"What makes cereal such a good choice is the high fiber, the low sugar, and low fat, and the addition of the milk and the fruit," says Somer. Without all that, she says, most cereal bars just aren't up to speed.

If you must eat them, Klein recommends saving them for an after-dinner treat and selecting healthier fare for your breakfast. If you need a quick, inexpensive fix in the morning, try grabbing a banana as you walk out the door.

To help you think outside the box, Somer and Heller offer five additional tips for quick, healthy, and nutritious breakfasts:

1. Night-Before Oatmeal. Put a serving of rolled oats, a serving of hot milk, and a little sugar into a vacuum-sealed thermos bottle and set on the counter overnight. The oats will steam to perfection, and in the morning you'll have an instant hot breakfast.

2. Ultra High-Fiber Smoothie. Into a blender container, put one serving of unflavored, no-fat yogurt; one serving of any whole-wheat dry cereal; a banana; and a tablespoon of orange juice concentrate. Blend into a nutrition-packed, high-fiber smoothie.

3. Restaurant Requests. When dining out, skip the white-flour pancakes and greasy cheese omelet. Opt for whole-wheat or buckwheat pancakes, skip the syrup and butter, and ask for a bowl of fresh fruit instead. When ordering an omelet, ask that it be made with egg whites only and request veggies -- but no cheese -- inside.

4. Cut Coffee Calories. When ordering your favorite '"wake me up'" coffee drink, skip the cream, half-and-half, and whole milk, and go easy on the sugar. Instead, order a "skinny" latte made with skim milk, no whipped cream. Be sure to enjoy your hot drink with some type of fiber (like a whole-wheat English muffin) and some protein (try a spread of nut butter).

5. Really Think Outside the Box. Remember that you don't have to eat '"breakfast' foods" for breakfast. Anything nutritious -- including cold pizza with low-fat cheese, leftover vegetables and whole-wheat crackers, or a grilled cheese sandwich -- can work for breakfast.