While the benefits of eating breakfast are well-known--it can prevent weight gain, boost short-term memory, lower the risk of Type 2 diabetes, and even make us happier--most of those health rewards depend on choosing the right foods.
"In general, a healthy breakfast contains protein, fruits, whole grains, or vegetables," says Ruth Frechman, nutritionist, and author of The Food Is My Friend Diet. Typically, you want to include foods from at least three of these groups, says Frechman.
The portion sizes will depend on your age, activity, and diet goals, but as a general guideline your "plate" should consist of about 25 percent protein, 25 percent carbohydrates, and 50 percent fruits and/or vegetables, says Frechman.
Frechman emphasizes the importance of eating breakfast, but recommends waiting until you're legitimately hungry to break bread. "If you force yourself to eat at 7 a.m. when you're not hungry, chances are you're going to gain weight."
When you are ready to chow down, here are some healthy breakfast options to make sure you start the day off right.
"Eggs are your friends again," says Frechman. Although one large egg contains 212 milligrams of cholesterol--a relatively large amount compared to other foods--it's now known that saturated fat, not the cholesterol in foods, increases "bad" blood cholesterol.
One egg carries around 70 calories and packs 6 grams of protein. Before you toss the yolk, remember that the yellowish center is where most of the nutrients are found. The yolk is a good source of lutein, a vitamin also found in spinach and kale that helps prevents eye diseases.
Whole-grain bread, cereal, or oatmeal
"Breakfast happens to be the easiest time to get in heart-healthy fiber from whole grain cereal and oats which can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol," says Lisa Moskovitz, owner of Your New York Dietitians. Fiber keeps us full and gives us energy.
"Always look for at least 5 grams of fiber when choosing breakfast cereals," says Moskovitz. She also says to use any milk with 1 percent fat or less. "No one over the age of 2 should be drinking higher fat cow's milk."
Another warning: If you're watching your weight, you want to stay away from whole-grain cereals with added sugar because those pack a lot of extra calories.
There are 8 grams of protein in two tablespoons of peanut butter, which is roughly 20 percent of the daily recommended amount for adult men and women. "It helps to have protein at every meal to regulate your blood sugar level," says Frechman. "If you were to have pancakes, syrup, and juice, your blood sugar would spike and then crash."
Also, peanut butter mostly contains the "good" unsaturated fat. "I always recommend a nut butter like cashew butter, almond butter, or sunflower butter instead of putting real butter, margarine, or cream cheese on a bagel," says Frechman. Yellowish spreads such as margarine are much higher in "bad" saturated fats.
Berries, bananas, or melon--take your pick. "There's no such things as an unhealthy fruit," says Frechman. However, you should mix and match your fruit choices to take advantage of a variety of different nutrients. Blueberries, for example, are high in antioxidants while oranges are loaded with vitamin C and potassium.
If you're looking for convenience, Frechman recommends bananas since they're easy to transport and eat without making a mess.
"A breakfast parfait would make a great, very convenient breakfast," says Frechman. A 6-ounce serving of yogurt contains as much protein as a serving as meat. Greek yogurt contains even more protein--sometimes double the amount of regular yogurt. If you have diabetes or are watching your calories, plain, nonfat, or low-fat yogurt is a healthier choice than fruit-flavored yogurts, which can have a lot of added sugar.
A smoothie makes a complete on-the-go meal. You can add a base of yogurt for protein and fresh or frozen fruit, such as strawberries, for sweetness. If you don't like eating your vegetables with dinner, this blended drink is an easy way to cram greens like spinach or kale into your diet.
It's completely acceptable to get your fruit in liquid form, but make sure to choose 100 percent fruit juice, otherwise there could be added sugar. "Punches and fruit drinks have added sugar, which are just extra calories," says Frechman.
Coffee has received a bad rap over the years, but long-term medical studies are now tipping in favor of the caffeinated beverage. As long as you're not pushing four cups a day, there's nothing wrong with drinking coffee.
Foods to avoid: Bacon, sausage, hash browns, processed cheese, biscuits with gravy, or granola bars
Most of these foods either contain a lot of saturated fat or are high in sugar. They're all right to eat once in a while, but not on a regular basis.
"People tend to think of granola bars as being healthy," says Frechman. "It's cheaper and more healthy to have just a bowl of cereal with milk and fruit."