There is no meal harder for me to stomach than breakfast. There. I admit it. While nutrition experts urge us to eat when we get up and my own family members eagerly munch bowls of cereal and buttered toast, I have never willingly taken part. Instead, you’ll find me sipping my mug of coffee, or when I was a kid, my glass of juice.
As it turns out, I’m not the only one skipping breakfast because of lack of appetite. "When you wake up in the morning, your stomach is empty and it hasn’t quite woken up either," says Calgary-based registered dietitian Gillian Proctor-Ronald, owner of Fuel Nutrition. However, as I have always known, avoiding breakfast is not a healthy habit. Just because you’re not starving with morning hunger doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat something. "If an adult simply lay in bed 24 hours a day, the body still requires 1,000 to 1,200 calories for organs to function," says Proctor-Ronald. "Waking up after a night of rest, your gas tank is empty, but you expect your body to get up and start the day? Not even your car would start with an empty tank."
Even registered dietitians aren’t always breakfast people
For years, Proctor-Ronald didn’t enjoy breakfast, even going so far as to call herself an "anti-breakfast" person. Even today, she can’t eat just after she gets out of bed. “Eating right when I get up still makes me feel nauseous, so I wait until I’ve showered and gotten myself together for the day," she says. "But I will have something to eat before I start my workday, regardless if it is at home right before I leave or something I’ve packed in my bag once I get to work.”
But many non-breakfast eaters rely on coffee to give them energy. "My clients who don’t like to eat breakfast tell me that coffee gives them all the energy they need in the hours before lunch. The problem with this is that coffee is calorie-free, therefore it does not provide any energy," she says, which fairly accurately sums up my eating, or rather, non-eating habits.
Getting in the mood for food
To get your sluggish morning metabolism revved up, drink a big glass of water with a lemon wedge before you brush your teeth or hop in the shower, Proctor-Ronald suggests. "This gets your system churning." If that doesn’t do the trick, at the very least try to "put something in your stomach," as your mom has probably said to you at least a few times. It’s crucial that your body get some sort of energy, even if it is in liquid form, such as orange juice. "Your body uses glucose to fuel itself, so have half a cup of calcium-fortified orange juice before you get behind the wheel," Proctor-Ronald advocates.
For me, a turning point came when I realized I wasn’t hungry for the common breakfast foods in Canada. Breakfast staples like eggs, cereal, milk, toast and porridge aren’t foods I crave at any time of the day, let alone when I haven’t yet worked up an appetite. A revelation came when a friend suggested I make her version of breakfast quesadillas, which consist of a swipe of low-fat refried beans and a sprinkle of good-quality cheddar on a whole-wheat tortilla. Fold in half, pan-warm until the cheese melts for five minutes total and presto, my Mexican-influenced breakfast was ready. All of a sudden, I was craving these when I woke up each morning and even looking forward to them the night before. "Once you get into the habit of fuelling up in the morning, your body will start to crave it, and your caloric intake at night-time should decrease because your body expects it will be refueled after rest," Proctor-Ronald says. It’s true, my nighttime chocolate ice cream and potato chip cravings lessened.
So what should you eat for breakfast?
There aren’t many balanced breakfasts that come together faster than pouring out cereal, adding a handful of fruit and nuts on top and splashing milk over it. But if you just aren’t in the mood right away, eat it once you get to work, or fill your cereal bowl the night before so when you see it, your stomach might want it in the morning.
Or rethink what you’re eating. When I wrote the Best Health story "Breakfast rituals from around the world," I was enthused to try Middle-Eastern-style spreads that included flat bread, hummus, nuts and fruit along with my morning coffee. "The best thing to eat is a combination of protein and carbohydrate for maximum energy. It doesn’t have to be ‘breakfast food’ at all," Proctor-Ronald says. Food is still food, and if it’s healthy leftovers that were good for you at dinner, it’s still good food at breakfast. "Your stomach isn’t that picky when it’s empty. If you want to eat cold vegetable pizza or the leftover roast beef and asparagus, go for it," she says.
However, this isn’t carte blanche to start eating cookies, pastries or even the processed breakfast foods that are thinly disguised sugary treats. "The last thing you should choose is a sugary coffee, donut, or sugar cereal," Proctor-Ronald says. "The processed white sugar will shoot up your blood glucose too quickly, insulin will quickly mobilize it to storage. You’ll get a sugar high and then an energy slump." Even though the energy from your sugary pastry is stored in your liver, your blood sugar will drop and you will crave more sugar, setting yourself up for this pattern all day long, she explains.
It might take a while
I’ve come to grips with the fact that I may never be a fast runner, a good singer, an early bird or an 8 am breakfast lover. Scrambled eggs and toast with jam will probably not be my morning food of choice, ever. However, like running, singing or getting up earlier, eating breakfast is something I (and you) can work on getting better at. "I never used to eat breakfast either," another friend recently admitted, "but there’s nowhere to buy food around my workplace. So I just started training myself to eat, and eventually I did get hungry before I left for work."
I admit I still don’t eat breakfast every day, but I’m trying to remember that my body wants me to fuel up, even if my mind doesn’t. "While we are happily snoozing for six to eight hours per night, our bodies are still functioning at a high level," Proctor-Ronald says. "Your brain, heart, lungs and other organs still need to work hard to keep you alive. Overnight your body uses up any energy you have stored in your liver and muscles for these vital organs and to repair any damage caused during the day." I can’t argue with that. Now pass the quesadillas.
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