Eat a healthy breakfast, nutrition experts say. Good advice, but like so much good advice, we don't heed it because we're always short on time. Something's gotta give, and which is worse: skipping breakfast or showing up late for work?
Yet there seem to be real benefits to eating a morning meal. For one thing, a healthy breakfast may sharpen your mental abilities in the morning. Studies showing this were done on children, but dietitians say the findings could reasonably be applied to adults, too. What's more, if you skip breakfast, you're likely to gorge on food later.
"When you don't eat breakfast in the morning, you tend to overeat calories the rest of the day," says Cynthia Finley, a dietitian at the Johns Hopkins Weight Management Center. "You reach the point where you're really hungry, and when you're really hungry you don't respond to your body's cues as well." That is, you don't realize you're full, and you continue to eat.
But it is possible to have a healthy breakfast with a minimum of planning and just a few seconds of actual food preparation.
The main things to look for in a healthy "briefcase breakfast" are protein and fiber. "Those two things are key to feeling full and satisfied," Finley says. Low-fat content is also important. She recommends no more than 5 grams of fat total and no more than 1-2 grams of saturated fat.
Sheah Rarback, a dietitian in Miami and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, also warns against super-sugary breakfast foods. "Sugar gives you calories and nothing else," she says. Sugar also causes a glucose surge, with a crash about an hour later.
Taking these nutritional requirements into account, we recommend the following morsels for a healthy breakfast that's quick and travels well:
Apples and Bananas
"What's quicker than putting a banana in your bag and eating it on the way?" Rarback says. The same could be said of apples, only you have to wash an apple. A banana alone will give you 110 calories, plus 1 gram of protein, and 16% of your daily fiber requirement. Add an apple, and you're up to 190 calories and 36% of your daily fiber, but you don't gain any more protein.
Overall, apples and bananas are low in protein, but a big plus is that you don't need utensils to eat them.
Energy bars, protein bars, cereal bars: We love our bars. Like bananas and apples, you can eat them with one hand, and they don't have much potential for making a mess. They can be good for you, too. But watch out for those that are so fatty and sugary that they're essentially candy bars. As with any packaged food, read the nutrition label.
Breakstone's Cottage Doubles
The container has cottage cheese in one well and fruit the other. You spoon the fruit into the cottage cheese, mix it, and presto -- breakfast. You would have to bring a spoon with you, however. One Cottage Double packs 14 grams of protein into 140-150 calories and 2.5 grams of fat total, although there's very little fiber.
Carnation Instant Breakfast
If you have time to chug a glass of orange juice in the morning, you have time to make a Carnation Instant Breakfast. Just add the powder to a glass of milk, stir, and drink. A packet of "No Sugar Added Rich Milk Chocolate" added to 8 ounces of skim milk yields 150 calories, one-quarter of your daily protein requirement, just half a gram of fat, and no saturated fat.
Morningstar Farms Breakfast Sandwich
If you like McMuffins, then you may like these little food units. Morningstar Farms has used the wonders of food science to create tasty alternatives to high-fat meats out of soy and other vegetable products.
Their healthy breakfast sandwiches are made with egg substitute, a meat substitute that looks and tastes like sausage, and American cheese on an English muffin. One of these will fill 20% of your daily fiber requirement, and it's loaded with protein -- 28 grams. The fat tops out at 3 grams, and only half a gram of that is saturated fat. It gives you 280 calories.
Compared with a McDonald's McMuffin, these sandwiches are obviously the healthier option. One Egg McMuffin has 290 calories, 12 grams of fat total, and 5 grams of saturated fat. A Sausage McMuffin has 360 calories and 23 grams of fat (8 grams saturated).
"You'd have to eat really low fat and really healthy the entire rest of the day in order to offset that Egg McMuffin," Finley says. And she sees another advantage to "nuke and go" breakfast sandwiches, besides how they stack up nutritionally. "You save time by packing it yourself rather than trying to go through a drive-thru," she says.
Other Healthy Breakfasts?
If you can think of something more appealing and just as healthy, eat it. "There's no one right breakfast food," Rarback says. "It's what feels right to someone."
Although a turkey sandwich, for example, isn't a traditional breakfast food, no one would disparage you for eating one at 8 a.m. "I'd say maybe you want it on whole wheat bread," Rarback says. Some people have their dinner leftovers for breakfast, and that's fine, too.
For those who say they're just not hungry in the morning, Rarback has a rebuttal. "When people start eating breakfast, they have to continue," she says. "You get used to it and then your body does want it."