Health Watch: Breakfast - Don't skip or skimp

On frosty winter mornings, your grandparents and their family gathered around a warm stove in the kitchen to enjoy a hearty breakfast - hot cereal, sausage, eggs, potatoes, toast and, on special occasions, hot cakes with maple syrup.

Even considering their hard physical labor, your grandparents somehow managed all those early morning calories. A good number of Americans today, including nearly 30 percent of adolescents, skip breakfast altogether. Yet, increasing numbers of both adults and children are classified as overweight or obese.

While it may sound illogical, studies have demonstrated that people who eat breakfast tend to be thinner and healthier than those who skip the first meal of the day. About 3,000 Americans are listed on the Weight Control Registry, a database of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for at least a year, and 90 percent of them say they eat breakfast most days of the week.

A recent Harvard study, collecting data during eight years from 4,000 young adults, indicated that those who ate breakfast regularly had a significantly reduced risk of becoming obese and developing insulin resistance - a condition associated with type 2 diabetes.

If you're starting a diet, breakfast may seem like an ideal starting point. Skip breakfast and go light on lunch; then you won't have to worry as much about what you eat for dinner. Actually, that's a good plan for weight gain rather than loss.

If you don't feel hungry in the morning, it may be because you've eaten too much - or too late - the night before. Overweight people have more fat stores to draw on during the night so it's understandable that they have less hunger in the morning than thinner individuals. Numerous studies have demonstrated that dieters who skip breakfast really don't gain any advantage since they tend to overeat on calorie-rich foods later in the day.

Break your fast

The gap between the evening meal and breakfast can be 12 hours or more. By this time, the liver's glycogen stores are substantially depleted and blood glucose levels are very low. It's time to break your fast and get your metabolism going.

As your grandparents understood, eating a good breakfast gives you an emotional lift and a burst of energy to face daily tasks. Skip breakfast and your metabolism compensates by going on slow burn, consuming fewer calories with the same amount of effort - exactly the opposite of what you intended.

If you stay away from the bacon and the biscuits and gravy, it's difficult to overeat at breakfast and the food choices are not all that calorie dense.

Breakfast actually is an ideal time to eat foods you seldom find an occasion to eat later in the day - fresh fruit, nuts, yogurt, whole grain cereal and bread - foods particularly high in complex carbohydrates, protein, fiber and calcium.

Try a bowl of oatmeal with sliced bananas and low-fat milk. Sprinkle some walnuts on top for even more nutrition and flavor. Or whole wheat toast with half a grapefruit and low-fat yogurt.

Although they may be too high in cholesterol for everyday consumption, eggs are a good source of protein. A spinach and onion omelet offers a lot of nutrition and flavor for the calories.

According to an Australian study, the best breakfast option for weight loss and performance was high in fiber and rich in carbohydrates: All-Bran cereal with 1/2 percent milk, sliced banana, toast and margarine. Subjects reported that their hunger returned more slowly and they felt more alert after this meal than after a similar, low-fiber breakfast, substituting corn flakes for the All-Bran and adding strawberry jam on the toast.

Subject who also ate high-fat breakfast selections - either croissants, margarine and jam or fried egg, bacon, grilled tomato, toast and margarine - were more pleased with their meal but found it less satiating than either of the high-carbohydrate options.

All four breakfasts had the same number of calories, but subjects were free to eat whatever they wanted after breakfast. By the end of the day, those eating the high-fat diets consumed more calories each day than subjects eating All-Bran or cornflakes.

High-fiber, high-carbohydrate foods generally take longer to eat and digest, and studies have found these to be more satiating than rapidly digested food. They also weigh more - another factor influencing the feeling of fullness.

In another study, nutritional researchers assigned a quality score to common breakfast items. The highest score was given to whole grain cereals; the lowest to bacon, which is high in sodium as well as saturated fats. Subjects who ate breakfast less frequently or ate foods rated as low quality had two to three times greater risk of diabetes and insulin resistance compared to those who regularly ate high-quality breakfasts.

If you're familiar with the Atkins diet, you may be leery of carbohydrates. They cause a rise in blood sugar, prompting secretion of insulin, which eventually promotes the storage of fat if you're not burning up excess calories.

When you awake, however, your blood sugar is at its lowest level. Eating nothing will put your metabolism in low gear, affecting your performance and your appetite the rest of the day. Eating a sugary cereal or a sweet roll may boost your blood sugar too quickly and leave you hungry by mid-morning.

According to studies, the best way to satisfy your appetite while improving mood, alertness, energy and metabolism is to get a moderate, steady increase in blood sugar through high-fiber foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans. Milk and yogurt add protein and calcium, which also play an important role in nutrition and metabolism.

The final part of the equation is exercise. Morning is a good time for a workout, and vigorous physical activity is what you need to get your metabolism in high gear. A bowl of whole grain cereal with fruit and nuts followed by a brisk 30 minutes on the treadmill or exercise bike - that may be the true breakfast of champions.

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