Even if you tend to wake up feeling a little groggy, what you eat for breakfast can boost your brain health and provide enough energy to get you through the morning.
“Luckily, we actually have a lot of data that drives what we think about when it comes to brain health,” Dr. Mona Bahouth, assistant professor of neurology at the Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, tells TODAY.com.
For her, that starts with water. “I always like to start the day with a big glass of water,” she explains. “It just gets you off to a good start, avoids dehydration and allows blood flow to the brain.”
Dr. Laura Stein also starts her day with water and a banana before her morning workout and a more formal breakfast.
From there, Bahouth and Stein, like all the experts TODAY.com spoke to, generally follow the principles of the Mediterranean diet. This nutrition plan emphasizes fresh fruits and veggies, legumes, whole grains and lean protein (particularly fish) as well as healthy fats, like those found in nuts and avocado. The diet also uses olive oil as the main cooking fat and limits highly processed foods.
The Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet and the MIND diet all follow similar guidelines and research suggests following these plans may reduce your risk for stroke and dementia.
“As a stroke doctor, I think of health really being about maintaining healthy flow to the brain and preventing stroke over the course of one’s life,” says Stein, assistant professor of neurology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.
“There are choices that we can make every single day in terms of what we eat that benefit not only our short-term health, but also our long-term health trajectories,” she tells TODAY.com.
What neurologists eat for breakfast:
Oatmeal with berries
Stein’s breakfast is oatmeal made with rolled oats, water and a bit of skim milk, but no sugar. “They can be prepared relatively quickly and are not quite as processed as most instant oats,” she says.
Then she usually adds fresh berries and nuts. Research suggests that berries (especially blueberries) and nuts, such as almonds and walnuts, are beneficial for brain health.
On days when she’s a little shorter on time or her son wants to eat the same thing as she does, Stein will go with some whole-grain cereal with skim milk and berries.
“There’s always pressure to stay away from packaged and processed foods, which I support, but at times we have to be practical,” she explains. “I try to reach for cereals that are high in whole grains and important vitamins and minerals and also low in sugar.”
Yogurt or cottage cheese with berries, nuts or granola
One of Bahouth’s go-to breakfasts is yogurt or cottage cheese, typically topped with berries or almonds. Sometimes, she’ll put some tomatoes in with her cottage cheese or granola in her yogurt for a little extra fiber.
Greek yogurt and cottage cheese can both offer some good, filling protein in the morning, she says “But you have to be careful with yogurt to really avoid those that are packed with sugar,” she says.
Dr. Caroline Tanner has similar tastes: “Almost every day what I have is organic fresh fruit — whatever is in season — with plain, unsweetened yogurt,” says Tanner, professor of neurology at the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at the University of California, San Francisco, tells TODAY.com.
Sometimes she’ll add walnuts or puffed kamut, an ancient grain, on top for some added crunch and nutrients, Tanner tells TODAY.com.
If she doesn’t have time for her usual oats, Stein will also go this route and reach for nonfat Greek yogurt with berries and nuts.
Egg white scramble with greens
“My ideal breakfast whenever I have the time in the morning would be egg whites cooked in olive oil with spinach, kale or any green, leafy vegetable,” Dr. Imad Najm, director of the Epilepsy Center at the Cleveland Clinic Neurological Institute, tells TODAY.com.
Studies about the potential health effects of eggs have turned up notoriously mixed results. While some have shown that there may be benefits to eating eggs with the yolk, “because it is controversial, I personally shy away from eating the whole egg,” Najm says.
Stein, who pays close attention to her cholesterol levels, also prefers to eat the egg whites only. Because the research is “kind of back and forth,” Tanner says, “to my mind that means moderation. Not in excess, but not a complete avoidance.”
On the side, he might have half an avocado, which adds even more healthy fats to the meal.
Salmon and avocado with whole-grain toast
Bahouth and Najm are both fans of salmon in the morning, typically cooked in olive oil. They might have it alongside a small piece of whole wheat toast and/or avocado.
With a mix of lean protein, healthy fats and whole grains, it’s a meal that can “really balance some of the Mediterranean (diet) concepts,” Bahouth says.
Najm is also careful to only eat wild-caught salmon, which tends to be leaner and have a more varied diet than farm-raised salmon.
Smoothie made with berries, greens and nuts
Another way Najm gets his greens and berries is in a morning smoothie. Typically, his smoothies include berries, kale, spinach and pecans. The pecans are important because “they will add fat and they contain quite a bit of minerals and antioxidants,” he explains.
A bowl of berries and nuts
Najm often eats a bowl of berries (like blueberries and raspberries) on the side of his meals or as a snack. Sometimes he’ll add pecans and even some 70% cacao dark chocolate as well, which is another good source of antioxidants, he says.
In a pinch, a handful of almonds, an apple or a low-fat cheese stick
If Bahouth is really in a rush, she might just grab a handful of almonds on her way out in the morning.
Tanner reaches for something filling and portable, like a slice of whole-grain toast with almond butter, an apple or a low-fat cheese stick, she says.
Tanner has a cup or two of coffee every morning with a little bit of soy milk and no sugar. “Population studies have found that people who are coffee drinkers are at lower risk of Parkinson’s,” she explains.
Other research suggests that moderate amounts of coffee can also reduce your risk for stroke and dementia.
Najm is also a routine coffee drinker, but he prefers a double espresso before leaving for work and another one when he gets there. He recommends people who have milk in their coffee stick with non-fat varieties.
What neurologists avoid eating for breakfast:
Sugary cereals and pastries
The experts TODAY.com spoke to tend to avoid sugary cereals and breakfast pastries. And they keep an eye out to avoid added sugar that may be hiding in other foods, too, like yogurt.
“It’s really important to start learning how to read labels because a lot of simple sugars can be kind of snuck into many foods, especially breakfast foods,” Bahouth says. “And some of them just have no worth to your body or your brain health.”
Tanner agrees: “I really try to avoid the high-fat, high-sugar breakfast like pastries,” she says.
Fatty breakfast meats
The Mediterranean diet discourages people from eating fatty meats and any processed meats too frequently, which includes classic breakfast items like bacon and sausage.
“I try to avoid processed meats all the time,” Stein says. “And I do try to minimize unnecessary salt where I can.”
Nutrition is just one factor
Bahouth encourages people to talk about nutrition with their health care providers to get individual recommendations that work for them.
“Many times, people assume that achieving a healthy diet is going to require a radical change,” she says. But through working with your doctor or dietitian, you’ll likely find it’s “the small and steady changes” that have the biggest impact, Bahouth adds.
In addition to your diet, you can help maintain your brain health through regular physical activity, mindfulness exercises and tapping into your community to combat loneliness.
Food is still an important factor. And breakfast offers a unique opportunity to support your brain health first thing in the morning.
“The beauty of breakfast is it gets you started off on the right foot,” Bahouth says. “But it also it’s also important to keep you full through the morning so that you can have the highest brain performance and highest energy level — and not feel hungry before lunch.”