What could one eat that has been proven to increase concentration, improve productivity at work and school, lower cholesterol and help with weight loss? Breakfast. To be clear, it's possible for a healthy breakfast to do all of these things. Toaster pastries, Lucky Charms cereal and pumpkin spice lattes are not parts of healthy breakfasts, but it isn't difficult to make a few adjustments that can make those first calories work for you rather than against you.
Research and documentation mention early civilizations and ancient Greeks and Romans eating something in the morning to "break" the night's "fast." This mainly consisted of various grains - barley, wheat, oats - ground into a paste, boiled, fried or baked - along with fruits, meats or cheeses and wines or beers.
For about 1,000 years, though, breakfast fell out of favor. During the Middle Ages the Roman custom became to eat only one large meal per day so as to digest it thoroughly. This evolved into the belief that eating more than one meal per day was a form of gluttony and was frowned upon by the Catholic Church. Breakfast became a symbol of weakness and poverty as it was only taken by children, the sick, the elderly or manual laborers who needed the energy to get through their mornings.
Grandma knew best. Oatmeal is one of the healthiest breakfast choices with high fiber to keep the stomach full and maintain a healthy digestive system. Add some nuts, fruit or a little real maple syrup for more nutritional benefits and flavor.
The aristocracy began the breakfast trend again, though. Traveling made them hungry, and no one argued as they packed supplies to sustain them since country sides were sometimes sparsely populated and without places to get full meals. At the end of the 1500's, opinions on breakfast had done a 180 degree turn, and doctors preached the importance of getting the metabolism going with a morning meal. By the Industrial Revolution, the breakfast stigma had passed, and factory workers set off daily with full stomachs.
Today, while 93 percent of Americans think it's the most important meal of the day, only 44 percent eat breakfast on a daily basis. Study after study indicates that what one eats for breakfast can affect meals and snacks for the rest of the day. Parents especially should be concerned about their children's breakfasts. A steady diet of sugar-laden cereals and juices will not only increase the likelihood of childhood obesity but reduce the ability to concentrate and drop energy levels. Children who can't focus in the classroom will have difficulty with schoolwork and tests. Research on adults shows similar results.
At the other end of the spectrum, not eating breakfast can be just as detrimental. The body needs energy to function. It will make up the energy it doesn't get at breakfast by eating more calories at lunch, at dinner and throughout the day. Again, research proves that breakfast eaters are able to lose more weight and keep it off than breakfast skippers. According to data at the National Weight Control Registry, 80 percent of those who have lost 30 or more pounds and kept it off for one year eat breakfast almost every day.
What are the foods that keep the body performing throughout the morning and even into the afternoon? Doctors recommend whole grains and protein, similar to the original breakfasts of the ancients. A minimal amount of carbohydrates - like fruit -- can jumpstart the body, but the heavier calories will keep the stomach full and regulate blood sugar. This reduces the risk of mid-morning "crash" as blood sugar drops, as well as reducing the risk of reaching for a doughnut in the break room or overeating at lunchtime. Eggs are especially efficient - natural, low in calories and almost pure protein. Even better, recent studies like one at Pennington Biomedical Research Center on eggs and weight loss discovered that most people can eat one or two eggs five days a week without threatening increases to cholesterol levels or blood lipids. Here are three common breakfast items and how one's choice about each can change the body's health.
Juice is healthy, right? Not so much. Doctors and researchers have linked high intakes of juice to childhood obesity, and most juice is processed from concentrate. In fact, some popular brands consist of only 18 percent or less of actual fruit juice, rendering most of the product sugar water. There are some brands which are labeled "100 percent juice." They are still not the healthiest choices. The bulk of the juice is usually apple juice or grape juice, less expensive fillers that, per 8 ounces, have 27 and 36 grams of sugar, respectively.
In addition, some food experts recommend that people skip juice in general because of the sugar and high fructose corn syrup in many brands and because part of a fruit's (and vegetable's) value to the body is its fiber, which juices don't have. Even home juicers obliterate the fiber in the processing.
Last week, The American Journal of Medicine released a report on fiber where their study of more than 23,000 people found that 80 percent of them consumed well below the recommended daily amounts and that men averaged less than 50 percent of the recommended intake, dramatically increasing their risks of heart disease. Fiber reduces blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol. More fiber means less hunger, too, and has been proven to aid in weight loss.
The body also needs two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber found in fruits (apples, citrus fruits), beans and oats helps reduce blood sugar and cholesterol. Insoluble fiber in nuts, whole grains and vegetables helps move food through the digestive system and reduces the risk of colon cancer.
Cereals can be a good source of fiber, and many contain protein, too. However, as with juices, cereals can be sources of unwanted sugar, and most use highly processed and genetically modified ingredients. A comparison of five cereals shows that reading the nutrition labels instead of just the front of the box could pay off health wise. One serving, 1.25 cups, of spoon size shredded wheat is in fact 100 percent whole grain wheat and wheat bran with 0 grams sugar, 200 calories and 9 grams protein. One serving, 1 cup, of frosted shredded wheat contains 44 grams of whole grain wheat and 190 calories, but has 11 grams sugar (this brand advertises "no high fructose corn syrup") and 6 grams protein.
Kellogg's has come out with Krave chocolate cereal advertised on the box front as a "good source of fiber and made with whole grain." While it may be made with whole grain, a look at the nutrition facts on the side of the box reveals that it is far from the best choice. One serving, .75 cup, contains 120 calories, 10 grams sugar, only 3 grams dietary fiber and 2 grams protein. The ingredients list begins with the "chocolate flavored filling," which is not a good sign.
Another Kellogg's cereal, the classic Special K, has long been popular with dieters - so much that they've expanded into snack bars and drinks. Reading the side panel, though, the cereal really only has a little protein and some vitamins. It is a toasted rice cereal with the additional ingredients of wheat gluten, sugar and defatted wheat germ. The one-cup serving contains 120 calories, 4 grams sugar, 6 grams protein and 0 grams fiber.
By spending just a little more time reading the nutrition facts to find the higher fiber and protein cereals, breakfast can play a huge part in reducing one's risk of heart disease and putting on pounds.
How do you take your coffee? If powdered creamer is part of the routine, half-and-half or even real cream would be a healthier choice. "Pream," developed in 1952, was the first powdered creamer, but the milk solids didn't dissolve well. In 1958 the Carnation Company revamped the formula using vegetable oil instead of milk protein. Today's products are similar, but the hydrogenated oils in non-dairy creamers are serious threats to the body's cardiovascular system.
Powdered creamers are generally corn syrup and vegetable oil with about 10 calories per teaspoon, 5 calories from fat. Liquid non-dairy creamers are water, sugar and corn syrup, but many people purchase flavored varieties which are higher in calories (35 per serving) than half-and-half (20 calories) and not as nutritious. A 2011 study published by Nestle Nutrition Institute Workshop pointed out the Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) in dairy products that combat saturated fats in digestion. Need non-dairy? Try rich, nutritious coconut milk as an alternative.
As if the oils and corn syrups aren't enough to dissuade health seekers, powdered non-dairy creamers have been used for other purposes: whitening clothes, cleaning dry erase boards, de-foaming fish tanks and as fake snow for film sets. The television show "Mythbusters" also used it for a demonstration on explosives, creating a fireball with the powder.
Breakfast is only one meal of the day. In order to feel (and see) the results of healthier choices, they have to be consistent through other meals and snacks. Choosing higher protein and fiber foods will get a healthy lifestyle off to a good start.