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You’ve heard it before: “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.” But the reality is that for most people, what we call “breakfast” is far from optimal for our health. Due to a combination of marketing, misleading health advice, and our modern-day schedules, most of the foods that pass as breakfast are in fact the very things that are linked to worse overall wellness of our bodies and brains, and may in fact contribute to a higher risk for developing brain and mood disorders.
So what should we be eating for our first meal of the day? Here are two great ways to help improve your breakfast quality to optimize brain health:
1. Replace added sugar and highly processed carbs with healthy fat, protein, and fiber.
Over the years, we’ve been fed a number of unhelpful pieces of advice about what constitutes a “healthy diet.” One of the clearest examples relates to our breakfast. The distortion here is as follows: Eating a sugary, refined carbohydrate meal first thing in the morning is somehow “healthy,” even though these are the exact types of meals that may leave us hungry and throw our metabolic health into disarray. This is incredibly important, as poor metabolic health is increasingly shown to map onto our risk for brain issues like dementia.
In the United States, the most common breakfast choice for people who regularly eat breakfast is cold cereal. And while this is an incredibly convenient option, most cold cereals are primarily highly processed carbohydrates, low in fiber, fat, and protein, and often accompanied by added sugar.
The combination of highly processed carbs and added sugar is unfortunately the predominant theme in breakfast, with muffins, danishes or bagels/toast, pancakes, and waffles representing common examples. What about breakfast bars and granola? They may sound healthy, but they’re often packed with added sugar.
How should we counter the issues represented by conventional breakfasts? Look to bring three elements into your meal whenever you can. These include fiber, protein, and healthy fat.
Great examples of protein sources include Greek yogurt, eggs, tofu (if you eat soy), protein powder, and nut butters. Healthier fat sources include olive oil, nut butters, seeds, and avocado. And great sources of fiber include chia seeds, vegetables, and beans.
Some great on-the-go options are nuts, Greek yogurt, and protein shakes (look for one without much-added sugar). If you’re craving waffles, pancakes and muffins, try looking for artisanal whole-grain (or non-grain flours) that may be higher in protein and fiber, e.g., buckwheat and almond flour). Similarly, if you want cereal, look for brands that focus on fiber, protein, and minimal added sugar.
2. Add in these four brain-boosting foods.
In addition to making changes to the general composition of your breakfast, you may want to consider adding in some specific foods that are linked to brain wellness because they’re rich in key brain health nutrients like omega-3 fats, plant nutrients, fiber, and certain vitamins and minerals. To this end, some of the foods that may best support a healthy brain include the following.
- Extra-virgin olive oil is packed with plant nutrients and healthy fat and is linked to better brain health. It makes a delicious drizzle on top of eggs and other savory breakfasts!
- Coldwater fish like salmon, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and herring (the SMASH fish) are packed with key omega-3 fats shown to be connected to better brain function.
- Dark leafy greens like chard, kale, spinach, and collard greens are rich in plant nutrients, vitamins, and minerals, as well as fiber that may support a healthier brain.
- Nuts and seeds are great sources of omega-3 fats as well as fiber and key vitamins and minerals. These are an amazing addition to a brain-healthy breakfast. Walnuts, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds may be especially excellent choices.