Updated: Nov 23, 2021
The food that you decide to eat first thing in the morning matters. Your first meal sends information to your body in the form of nutrients to set up your day. It’s the ideal time to eat a meal that makes you feel sharp, alert and energised.
It's not the time to eat chemically laced flakes, bubbles or loops, unnaturally perfect slices of refined grains, or liquid forms of cereal and fruit. Our 'normal' food staples aren't all that normal to our bodies, but our minds have been trained not to notice.
I've been there. Each morning, after reluctantly conceding to the (second) tone of my alarm, I’d stagger bleary eyed into the kitchen and prepare a generous helping of cereal and milk and a glass of orange juice. It all tasted delicious. I felt 'fine'. It's just that I didn't realise I could feel a hell of a lot better.
Often, our first meal of the day is a routine. It's tricky to change in an instant. Instead, aim to nudge your plate little by little to feature more nutrient dense real foods, and less ultra-processed items.
Here's a guide to help you take that first step.
Emphasise protein, fats and fibre
There's three vital nutrients that tend to be neglected on our AM plate: protein, fats and fibre. All three increase satiety, help to stabilise blood sugar and reduce hunger later on. You’ll side step the mid-morning slump that tends to accompany a morning meal high in carbohydrates, especially the fast acting carbohydrates in ultra-processed foods.
Small, sustainable changes are better than huge, unrealistic ones. And you don't have to take an 'all or nothing' approach to see a benefit.
But it's not just about nutrients. Think about your choice of foods, not just the 'macros' in it. For example, take 'carbs'. The kind of foods that you eat and the composition of your meal affects the speed glucose enters your blood stream, and the amount of insulin your pancreas needs to release to clear it. A steady supply of glucose and a small and controlled insulin rise from fried eggs on a piece of toast is a far cry from a sugar and insulin shock to the system from 2 slices of bread, a dollop of jam or honey and a glass of fruit juice.
What should I eat for breakfast?
Start simple. Find the easiest possible change to increase foods that are higher in fats, proteins and fibre.
Think of it like a ladder. You can climb from the ground to the top, step by step, one change at a time. Some might make one leap and land triumphantly, but for a lot of us a sudden big change isn't practical or sustainable. If that's you, it's better to focus on the first step, find your balance there, and then take another step.
The first step creates the momentum to build habits and attain results.
Use this Level 1, 2 and 3 habit formation chart to choose the level and food choices that best describes you. Then track your meal across each level to create a chain of change.
You might find that you pick and choose ideas from different parts and levels of the chart, or that you have an idea that isn't listed. Go for it! The road to healthier eating is more of a 'Choose your adventure' thing than a 'One size fits all'.
Level 1: Commit to just one change for 7 days
Usually eat toast and jam or butter? Find a fresh sourdough and change the jam for real butter (not margarine), or a natural nut butter. Even better, substitute the spread for a couple of eggs and eat eggs on toast. If you don't have time to fry eggs, or you're at work, make your toast and keep hard boiled eggs in the fridge ready to go.
Usually eat instant oats? Try adding 1 scoop of a quality protein powder, like a whey protein isolate, 1/2 a cup of berries and cinnamon.
Usually eat cereal and milk? Try a full fat Greek or plain yoghurt and a muesli. If you buy your muesli, look for one that's sugar free and contains real, decipherable ingredients only. You could also add 1/2 cup berries.
Usually drink a liquid cereal? Try blending a Banana berry kefir smoothie.
Usually eat a muffin or bacon and egg roll? If portability is a criteria, make a supply of Big breakfast muffins ahead of time and keep in the fridge for each morning.
Usually add a glass of fruit juice? Substitute for a piece of fruit instead. Eg, eat an orange instead of drinking a glass of bottled orange juice.
Level 2: Nudge it for another 7 days
Usually eat 2 pieces of toast? Replace 1 piece of toast for fried tomato, mushroom, spinach and onion. Add this to your eggs to create a fuller plate.
Usually eat instant oats and WPI? See if you can change from instant to rolled oats, to create a habit of cooking on the stove in the morning.
Usually eat yoghurt and muesli? Try a nut and seed blend instead of muesli, or make a simple Nut and seed toasted muesli or granola at home.
Usually drink a smoothie? Try adding 1 scoop of a protein WPI to this.
Usually eat a Big breakfast muffin? You're already cooking ahead of time, so let's try making another dish that you can keep handy in the fridge for the morning. Maybe salmon patties? Or, it might be a frittata, classic beef burger patties, or a chicken, bacon and leek casserole. Or, try cooking my favourite big breakfast, a plate of bacon, eggs and fried veggies in the morning.
Level 3: Step up your protein for another 7 days
Usually eat 1 piece of toast, 2 eggs and fried veggies? Try adding another protein source. That could be smoked salmon, chipolata sausage, cheddar or feta cheese, tinned tuna or sardines, cannellini beans.
Usually cook rolled oats and WPI? You're already cooking, so let's try a cooked meal. You could eat something that has a similar feel, like quinoa, pumpkin and salmon, or a chicken and leek soup.
Usually eat yoghurt and muesli? Choose a couple of days to make a cooked meal. Go for a simple egg based plate, like bacon and eggs, beans and eggs or steak and eggs.
Usually drink a protein smoothie? Instead of adding the protein to it, take that out and try eating 2 eggs on the side instead. You could also change to yoghurt and nuts, instead of kefir and fruit.
Usually eat bacon and eggs? Try something different, like steak and eggs, salmon and eggs. For a break from eggs, try a combo like salmon or chicken and avocado. Or, substitute a portion of nuts instead of the eggs on a couple of mornings.
Ready to shake things up, step by step? Another step on the ladder is the timing of your first meal. That matters because of food's role in the body as a zeitgeber (aka, it signals 'Go time'!) To dial in your meal timing, read more on My unusual take on why breakfast is the most important meal of the day (if you have digestion troubles or energy lulls, this is for you!)