Breakfast on the Run: Thinking Outside the Box

Is your quick breakfast as healthy as you think?

By Colette Bouchez
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

Which of the following foods do you think constitutes a healthy breakfast?

  • A bran muffin
  • A supermarket smoothie
  • A cereal bar
  • A bowl of corn flakes

If you're like most folks, you probably think any of the above would be a pretty healthy way to start your day.

In truth, experts say, any of the four could be a less-than-optimal choice -- unless you know what to look for.

"A lot of times breakfast foods play on certain buzzwords that we have come to associate with good health, but you have to look at the whole picture -- everything a food contains -- before you can determine if it's really a good choice," says Miriam Pappo Klein, MS, RD, clinical nutrition manager at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

At the same time, studies show that it's vital to eat breakfast. Skipping it can lead to problems in both the short and the long run.

"Research shows that people who skip breakfast frequently consume a greater number of calories throughout the day than those who start the day with a meal," says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.

Studies also report that those who eat breakfast think better, start their day in a better mood, and have more energy to burn, Heller says.

So what should you choose to start your day off on the right foot? Experts say there are plenty of choices -- if you learn think outside the box!

And, of course, your breakfast is just one part of your overall diet. If there's a certain breakfast item you love that's less than totally healthy, go for it. Just make sure your other food choices are wise ones. The most important thing is to start the day with something.

Choosing a Breakfast Cereal

There's no question that Americans love their breakfast cereal. And experts agree that it can be one of the best ways to start your day.

"The breakfast that has been shown over and over to be the healthiest - and it's almost impossible to beat - is a bowl of whole-grain cereal, non-fat milk, and a piece of fruit," says Elizabeth Somer, MA, RD, author of the book "10 Habits That Mess Up aA Woman's Diet."

But not all cereals are alike, says Somer. Choosing the wrong one can mean you miss out on some of the nutritional payback. So what should you look for?

First on Somers' own list is fiber: "A good breakfast cereal should have at least 3 grams of fiber per serving or more," she says.

While we may be swayed by claims of vitamins and minerals, or by healthy-sounding phrases like "all -natural" or "multigrain," experts say these things have little meaning if the fiber isn't adequate.

Next, check the sugar and sodium content. Somer says the healthiest cereals have 4 grams of sugar or less per serving. Heller believesays the sodium should be under 200 grams per serving.

And, the experts remind us, don't overlook the fat content. Yes, there can be lots in some cereals. "Granola and other mixes can be loaded with palm and coconut oil -- not only high in fat, but also high in trans fat," says Somer. Her recommendation: choose cereals with no more than 2 grams of fat per serving.

While you may be tempted to munch your cereal dry during your drive to work, take five minutes at the breakfast table and add fresh or frozen fruit, and drench those flakes in skim or low-fat milk.

"Now you've got the perfect combo of protein and carbohydrate - the carbohydrates will fuel your brain and your muscles, the protein will keep you satiated - plus, if people don't have milk for breakfast, they hardly ever make up their calcium later in the day," says Somer.

If you're just not a cereal kind of person, you can find some healthful breakfast choices on the bakery aisle if you read the labels before you buy.

"Some supermarket smoothies have
up to 20 teaspoons of sugar
in each serving."

"This means not only paying attention to all the ingredients -- like sugar, sodium, and fat -- but also the calories as they pertain to the portion size," says Klein.

For example, while a bran muffin can be a good source of fiber, Somer says, a portion is 1 ounce. But the average muffin is 7 ounces.

"A lot of the good you get from the fiber, you can lose with the excess calories," says Somer.

Further, if the top of the muffin looks shiny, or if it leaves a slick taste in your mouth, chances are that the fat content is too high, she says.

If you're not sure how much a muffin weighs, experts say, don't eat more than half. Always skip the butter, and, whenever possible, choose a variety that is high in fiber (like bran or oat) and low in fat and sugar.