The way we start our day can drastically influence how the rest of it will pan out. This is often why breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day. And with the culinary inspiration of social media in recent years, there’s no shortage of creative breakfast ideas to choose from. But what constitutes the healthiest breakfast? What foods or nutrients should you be looking for to fuel your body? Is breakfast actually as vital of a meal as its claimed to be?
Is Breakfast Really That Important?
“Breakfast nourishes the body with important nutrients and provides energy to start the day,” Batajoo says. Research also proves the importance of a morning meal. One 2021 data analysis of over 30,000 people found individuals who skipped breakfast were more likely to get fewer key nutrients—including fiber, vitamins C, D, and A, B vitamins, calcium, iron, and phosphorus—in their overall diet. Another 2021 review found that individuals who were regular breakfast eaters had lower risk of heart disease and metabolic disorders like type 2 diabetes. Yet another study found that skipping breakfast was associated with interference with circadian rhythms, as well as higher blood sugar levels after eating for the remainder of the day in those with diabetes.
All of this said, on the other hand, every person is ultimately different, and it’s important to listen to your body, your appetite, and your preferences. While some people may feel better eating breakfast, others might not—and that’s perfectly OK. If you don’t typically eat breakfast and don’t love the way you feel most mornings or early afternoons, try having a good breakfast to experiment, and see if it helps boost your energy, focus, mood, or hunger pangs.
Components of the Healthiest Breakfasts
In terms of what a well-rounded breakfast is actually composed of, there are a few key nutrients to look for. “The healthiest breakfast consists of complex carbohydrates, protein, and heart healthy fats to keep you satiated, provide energy to kickstart your day, and maintain weight,” says registered dietitian Asmita Batajoo, MS, RD. Let’s take a closer look at how each of these macronutrients, plus one bonus nutrient group, is important.
While often vilified, carbohydrates are key to a healthy breakfast (and an overall balanced diet). However, it’s important to choose complex carbs because they’re rich in fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Whereas simple carbs (or refined carbs), like the pastries, bagels, and pancakes, often associated with breakfast, offer little more than quickly digestible sugars (and they’re still a great, occasional treat!). Regularly prioritizing complex carb options like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and legumes at breakfast time will provide a wide array of health-boosting nutrients; plus, their fiber helps keep us fuller longer through its ability to regulate blood sugars.
Protein is not only essential for healthy energy levels and satiety—exactly what we’re looking for from breakfast—but it also helps build and maintain almost every tissue in the body. Ideally, aim for lean proteins, which have less saturated fat and dietary cholesterol to support optimal heart health. These can include lean cuts of meat or poultry, eggs, fish, nuts, seeds, low-fat dairy, and legumes.
Healthy fats also increase satisfaction after eating, making them a perfect breakfast inclusion. Healthy fats promote cell, brain, heart, and metabolic health while also providing a concentrated source of energy. Not all types of fat are as beneficial as others when it comes to their health benefits. Of the three main types of fat (saturated, trans, and unsaturated), choose unsaturated fat sources as often as possible—they positively influence heart health, whereas the other two fat types can be detrimental to it when eaten in excess. Sources of heart-healthy unsaturated fats include olives, olive oil, avocado, nuts, seeds, and some vegetable oils like safflower and sunflower.
Various Micronutrients: Vitamins, Minerals, and Plant Compounds
These micronutrient groups (meaning we need them in smaller amounts than the above macronutrients) are also crucial at breakfast time, if you can try to pack them in somehow. They’re associated with countless health benefits, but will be especially effective at reducing inflammation throughout the body to promote optimal immune and whole body health. You’re primarily going to find these nutrients in plant-derived foods like nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Nutrients to Limit or Avoid for the Healthiest Breakfast
While we all love a donut for breakfast from time to time, high-sugar foods and sweets disguised as breakfast are ultimately not going to serve us in the morning (or throughout the rest of the day). They’re metabolized quickly, leading to a rapid spike in energy levels and a subsequent swift crash, often leading to sluggishness, cravings, and feelings of hunger not long after eating. Plus, too much added sugar can contribute to inflammation in the body that hinders the immune system and overall health. If you love something sweet in the morning (you are not alone!), opt for the occasional pastry (and eat it alongside a source of protein and fiber), limit your sweeteners (or try using a less-refined sweetener like real maple syrup, dates, whole-fruit jam, or honey).
Remember, too, that many “healthy” breakfast foods are loaded with added sugars—flavored instant oatmeals, bars, yogurts, certain juices and smoothies, granola, cereals, and so on—so do a quick scan of nutrition labels to get a sense of how much sugar you’re really getting at breakfast time.
With the array of salty meat products that often accompany a hearty breakfast like bacon, sausage, and ham, the sodium content can really add up. Excessive amounts of sodium over long periods of time can lead to high blood pressure levels, but even in the short term, a high sodium meal can leave you feeling bloated and groggy, and that’s no way to start the day.
Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
Many breakfast foods can also be high in saturated fat and dietary cholesterol. These types of fat are generally considered to elevate your blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels. There is some budding research that finds they aren’t as closely linked to fully actualized heart disease as once thought. Even so, we do want to avoid high intakes of these nutrients as they do still have the potential to negatively impact our heart health.
Ultra-processed foods, which often combine all the aforementioned nutrients to be wary of. Generally, these foods are linked with increased inflammation throughout the body and overall chronic disease risk. Plus, they won’t offer you the kind of sustained energy you’re really looking for in a healthy breakfast.
Is There a Best Time to Eat Breakfast?
“Eating meals at a regular time each day helps promote regular digestive patterns and may boost your mood,” Batajoo says. “According to researchers, eating later in the day can cause the hunger hormone ghrelin to spike, which can result in an increased appetite.”
“Our bodies are most sensitive to insulin earlier in the day so it is best to obtain more of your caloric intake in the morning or early afternoon instead of at night for better blood sugar management,” she adds.
Generally, it’s recommended to enjoy breakfast within two hours of waking as this helps to get your metabolism up and running for the day.
The Healthiest Breakfast Foods to Include in Your Morning Meals
Yogurt is a highly nourishing food that combines all three macronutrients—protein, carbs, and fat—in one delicious package (especially if you choose a fat-containing variety). Yogurt is a filling, tasty base for a parfait of berries, nuts, and granola, or for a protein-fueled smoothie. Yogurt contains probiotics, making it a gut-healthy choice to jump-start your day. Also, while full fat yogurt might raise red flags for saturated fat content, the fermentation process involved in making yogurt actually converts some of the saturated fatty acids over to more heart-healthy unsaturated fats. Plus, full-fat yogurt in the morning will have even more staying power than non-fat varieties.
Eggs have been an American breakfast staple for decades at this point, and they’re a great way to add healthy protein into any morning meal. And while there is some dietary cholesterol in egg yolks, enjoying whole eggs a few times per week is a very nutritious choice and shouldn’t hurt your efforts to maintain good heart health. However, if you really need to be cautious of your cholesterol levels (and your doctor or a nutritionist has recommended making dietary changes to help), simply opt for egg whites.
3. Chia Pudding
Though only really gaining popularity in the last few years, chia seed pudding seems to be here to stay—especially for breakfast. Not only is it easy to prep ahead of time for a quick, grab-and-go option, but chia pudding is also loaded with fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids. All of these combine to leave you feeling energized while also supporting your gut and overall health.
For some of us, oatmeal has been our go-to breakfast for years on end, including Batajoo, “I love eating a bowl of oatmeal, especially steel cut, in the morning. I usually add honey, cashew butter, blueberries and a dash of cinnamon to really amp up the flavor.” This is an excellent choice when it comes to our overall health as oats are loaded with heart healthy fiber that will keep us satisfied all morning long. So whether it’s overnight oats, oatmeal, or granola, springing for oats is always a good idea first thing in the morning.
When I’m on-the-go, I always opt for a smoothie in the morning, which lets me pack in all my essentials while filling me up. I’ll add frozen fruit and veggies (like spinach) for my complex carbs, vitamins, and minerals. Then toss in a bit of nut butter, flax, chia, and hemp for my healthy fats and proteins. Sometimes I’ll sneak in ingredients that I wouldn’t normally eat on their own, but that pack a nutritional punch whirled into a smoothie (these might include spirulina, adaptogenic mushroom powder, or a plant-based protein powder).
6. Whole Grain Toast
Whether it’s slathered in nut butter and bananas, mashed avocado, smoked salmon and cream cheese, or a runny egg, whole grain toast is, and always will be, an ideal addition to a well-rounded breakfast. Whole grain breads contain the fiber, vitamins, and minerals that white breads don’t, so provide added fuel for a busy day. “Avocado toast also makes a tasty, satiating breakfast and you can throw a fried egg on top for extra protein,” Batajoo says. Other whole grain products like low-sugar cereals, pancakes, and tortillas will also offer the satisfying benefits of complex carbohydrates.