What to Eat for Breakfast: The Benefits of Balance
Written by Molly Doyle | Edited by Carol Coutinho
Have you ever been in such a rush to get to work that you skip the first meal of the day? Or perhaps to avoid the conundrum of what to eat for breakfast, you’ve reached for the easiest item on your shelf, like a granola bar or a Pop-Tart? Unfortunately, our schedules often encourage a rushed and hectic routine. This means that rather than consume foods that will satiate and fuel us up for the day ahead, we sacrifice enjoyment and fulfillment for the sake of saving time.
Breakfast is a powerful meal. Because it is the first thing you eat after a night of sleep, it has the ability to set the tone for your whole day. Consider an elite athlete, like a marathon runner or a basketball player. As they get ready for a meet or a game, they aren’t going to treat their nutrition as an afterthought. Since what they eat directly gives them energy for what they are about to do, they eat food with purpose.
While most of us aren’t about to jump into a marathon after breakfast, we do have long days ahead of us. Hence, we need and expect our bodies to perform in certain ways. This gives us the confidence that we can complete all our tasks while also having the energy to enjoy ourselves where we can. Carefully choosing what to eat for breakfast can provide us with the energy we need to tackle the day.
Food As Fuel
Imagine that you’re going on a long road trip. Your bags are packed and you’re ready to go. What is the first thing you do when you get in your car? Check to see how much gas you have left in the tank! Just like trying to drive one hundred miles on an empty tank, engaging in physical activity on an empty stomach is close to impossible. The fuel that fills our bodies up is food.
Our energy comes from macronutrients. There are three macronutrients that are integral to our health—proteins, carbohydrates and fats. As we digest our food, these macronutrients begin to break down, thus kickstarting the process of making more energy. But, what exactly is digestion? It starts in our mouths as we chew our food and then carries on inside our stomachs. From there, the nutrients in our food are taken in by the bloodstream where our organs process them. Once they’re ready, our cells absorb the nutrients and begin the process of metabolizing them. This metabolic process creates energy!
D., Dr. Karen Reed Ph., et al. “How Digestion Works – Infographic.” Positive Health Wellness, 31 July 2020.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbs. This popular macronutrient floats around as a buzzword in the diet world quite often. Low-carb diets, carb-free eating, keto diets, the list is endless. However, carbohydrates are necessary for our bodies to create and maintain energy throughout the day. When you eat carbs, they break down into glucose and are absorbed into your bloodstream. They then mix with the products created by the breakdown of the other two macronutrients (proteins and fats) to give your body energy.
Where can you find carbohydrates? Almost anywhere! The typical breakfast foods we see in restaurants or diners are often based around foods that are high in carbohydrates, like pancakes. But these types of high carb foods are not the only kind. For instance, you can find carbohydrates in foods like fruit and legumes as well. The difference between items like pancakes and beans is the type of carbohydrates that they are made of. While all carbohydrates are composed of sugar units that are held together, some are held more tightly together than others. Simple carbohydrates refer to foods in which the sugar units are bound loosely. On the other hand, complex carbs are just the opposite where the sugar units are held together tightly.
As an illustration, try understanding simple and complex carbs as holding someone’s hand. The more loosely you hold their fingers, the easier it is to pull apart. The same goes for simple carbs. They break down faster inside your body, creating energy for a shorter period of time. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand, break down slowly because their sugar units are more tightly bound. This means that as they break down throughout the day, your body will create lasting energy. When you are choosing what to eat for breakfast, complex carbohydrates will offer you more sustained energy.
Pop Quiz Question:
Which type of carbohydrate is better for you, complex or simple?
Both! Because they serve different purposes, it is helpful to include both complex and simple carbs in your diet. Do keep in mind though, that eating candy is not a substitute to eating a strawberry! You can include both simple and complex carbs in your breakfasts by pairing fruits and oatmeal.
What Are Fats?
Our second macronutrient that is essential in creating energy in our bodies is fat. While fat has gotten a bad rep over the years, it’s not something we should always be avoiding. On the contrary, it’s actually recommended that we get about 15-20% of our calories from fatty foods. Now, this is not a suggestion to go ahead and eat a whole bunch of potato chips and call it a day. Similar to carbohydrates, there are different types of dietary fats.
In general, the kind of fats that we want to be consuming on a regular basis are called monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and omega-3 fatty acids. Eating these often can play a role in regulating cholesterol levels which in turn helps fight the risk of developing heart disease or diabetes. The fats that are not as beneficial to our health are saturated fat and trans fat. Where can we find these? Generally in highly processed food, like chips or frozen pizza, or in animal products like red meat. Consuming high amounts of trans or saturated fats can raise your overall cholesterol which might lead to heart attacks or poor health.
How does fat help fuel the body? It actually plays a very important role. Because it takes so long to digest and reach the muscles, it’s a great source of energy for longer activities. For example, someone who goes for a long run will be reaching into their fat sources for fuel. Someone who is doing high-intensity exercise, like a circuit-class, will get their energy mostly from carbohydrates. Including healthy fats in your breakfast will greatly increase your energy as you embark upon your day.
Pop Quiz Question:
Should you eliminate all saturated and trans fats from your diet?
It depends! As always, what you eat is up to you. While it’s best for the function of your body not to rely on saturated or trans fats as your main source of energy, there is nothing wrong with including some in your diet. If you cook with butter, awesome! If you’re looking for a more heart-healthy option, try lessening your portions or subbing it out for avocado oil. Do you love snacks, like cheez-its? Me too! Try opting for these as an occasional treat rather than a go-to option. Because of the unnatural ingredients, these are often heavy on the trans fat.
What Is Protein?
Protein is another macronutrient that has built a big name for itself over the years, and for good reason. It is essential in keeping your body running smoothly. A lot of our body is actually made up of protein including our muscles, skin and bones. Furthermore, it plays a critical role in rebuilding the torn muscle fibers that occur with exercise, resulting in an increase in strength overtime.
Protein shows up in a lot of different foods. Even if it isn’t a food that is super high in protein, chances are that it will have some amount of the macronutrient. There are plenty of choices when it comes to eating protein. For healthy options that are packed with protein, look towards white meat, like chicken or turkey. You can also find protein in vegetarian options such as eggs or vegan foods like peanut butter. While protein is largely good for you, consuming too much of it in the form of fatty cuts of meat like beef or sausage can lead to heart issues or clogged arteries.
In terms of creating energy, protein helps deliver oxygen to the different parts of your body. Your cells use this much-needed oxygen to break down sugar and turn it into energy. On average women should consume at least 46 grams of protein per day and men 56 grams per day. However, this number will vary depending on your age and activity level. When you engage in heavy exercise, like strength training, your muscles actually develop little tears in the fibers. Protein helps repair those tears and rebuilds your muscle back stronger.
Pop Quiz Question:
Is it possible to eat too much protein?
Answer: Yes! Like everything in life, it is possible to go overboard with protein. Generally, increasing your protein intake with the amount of exercise you do will be sufficient to keep your body happy and healthy. If you’re confused about what to eat for breakfast, starting your day with some protein-rich foods is a good way to stay full.
The Importance of Balance According to a Collegiate Athlete
We caught up with Garrett Moon, former D1 college athlete and elite personal trainer, and picked his brain about how balance played a part in his breakfasts and overall health.
Cook & Culture: What does balance in terms of food mean to you?
Garrett: Being able to get all forms of macronutrients that are necessary for an individual in one day. It’s important to make sure that you balance your meals and fit them into your schedule and are able to eat at the proper time. Timing plays a part in getting the correct nutrition throughout the day and it can be easy for other activities to get in the way of that. Creating balance in what we eat and when we eat it can help us bring that same approach towards other parts of our lives.
Cook & Culture: How does nutrition play a part in preparing you for intense exercise?
Garrett: It is extremely important. Without the proper nutrients your body has nothing to run on. Without it your body will use it’s own muscles for energy, meaning that you end up losing muscle fibers rather than building strength by using other stores of energy. Because our practices were so early in the morning, we often had to eat breakfast after our workout which replenished all our energy we had used up.
Cook & Culture: When you train, either for basketball or strength training, do you notice that your energy levels are impacted by including or excluding certain foods in your diet?
Garrett: Yes. If I don’t get enough carbs (vegetables, fruits, pasta) I have less energy than if I were to eat them. If I eat heavier foods or foods high in saturated fats I feel sluggish and can’t perform my best.
Balanced Breakfast Ideas
Not sure what to eat for breakfast? The key to making a great morning meal is balance. Like so many things in life, our bodies work best when we nourish them with a balanced mixture of foods. If you focus on the three macronutrients—proteins, carbohydrates and fats—figuring out what to eat for breakfast becomes simple.
Mix and match! Eating the same thing every day can become a little tedious. While routine is nice, it can be helpful to shake things up every once in a while. Having a list of foods that you enjoy and are filled with each macronutrient makes deciding what to eat for breakfast fun and easy. You can keep some of each of these foods in your kitchen. Choose the ones that match your mood the morning of or make a plan the night before. You can also try out one of these balanced meal ideas and share your results with @cookandculture.
The Meal-Prepped Meal: Strawberry Overnight Oats Author: Molly Doyle
Total Time: 5 minutes Difficulty: Easy
- 1/2 cup rolled oats
- 1/2 cup almond milk
- 1/2 cup strawberry greek yogurt
- 2 tbsp chia seeds
- 6 strawberries, sliced
- Honey (optional)
- Strawberry jam (optional)
- 1. Mix together the oats, almond milk and chia seeds.
- 2. Add in the yogurt and mix to combine.
- 3. If you are using the jam and honey, mix in a little bit of each.
- 4. Top with sliced strawberries and walnuts and refrigerate overnight.
- 5. Enjoy first thing in the morning for a tasty breakfast.
The Athlete’s Plate Author: Molly Doyle
Total Time: 5 minutes Difficulty: Easy
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 2 eggs
- 2 strips of turkey bacon
- 1 slice of whole grain toast
- 1/2 avocado
- 1. Heat a skillet with a light drizzle of olive oil and place the turkey bacon on top.
- 2. While your turkey bacon fries, pop your slice of toast in the toaster.
- 3.Crack your eggs into the skillet next to the bacon. You can use the same pan to save some dishes, or use a different one if you like to keep things separate.
- 4. Once everything reaches your desired level of doneness plate your bacon, fried eggs and toast.
- 5. Slice up some avocado and place it on your toast. Try smashing it with a fork or layering the slices for a more delicate look. Drizzle with sriracha and salt.
What to Eat for Breakfast
While it is important that we nourish our bodies with whole foods as much as possible, enjoyment should still be at the forefront of our meals. Determining what to eat for breakfast can be a fun and delicious process. Give one of these well-balanced recipes a try and tag @cookandculture on instagram. Try out some new foods that you’ve alway been curious about. Pair an old favorite with a new find. At the end of the day, your body will be most satisfied and energized when you begin your day with balance.
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D., Dr. Karen Reed Ph., et al. “How Digestion Works – Infographic.” Positive Health Wellness, 31 July 2020, www.positivehealthwellness.com/infographics/digestion-works-infographic/.
Doyle, Molly. Complex Carbohydrates Infographic. March 2021.
Doyle, Molly. Healthy Fats Infographic. March 2021.
Doyle, Molly. Lean Protein Sources Infographic. March 2021.
Doyle, Molly. Less Healthy Fats Infographic. March 2021.
Doyle, Molly. Less Healthy Protein Sources Infographic. March 2021.
Doyle, Molly. Simple Carbohydrates Infographic. March 2021.
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