7 Popular Breakfast Foods That Actually Rev Up The Stress Response
Breakfast: There's a reason it's considered the most important meal of the day! Eating breakfast is a chance for your body to break its overnight fast and your brain to get its first source of energy for the day ahead.
As a nutritional psychiatrist, I know firsthand that fueling the body and brain appropriately at breakfast is key for all-day focus, clarity, and energy.
There are some excellent breakfast options out there for brain health...and some not-so-good ones. Here are the top seven worst breakfast foods for your brain:
All-fruit smoothies (that are really milkshakes!)
While I often recommend a smoothie as an easy, portable way to pack a powerful punch of proteins and plant-powered nutrition, there are many smoothies that are really sweet milkshakes in disguise. In particular, smoothies that are made just of fruit (often high-glycemic bananas and mangoes) and fruit-flavored sherbets or yogurts pack a high amount of sugar.
Without fat or protein to taper its blood sugar-spiking effects, such a smoothie may cause an energy spike with an ensuing crash just hours later—resulting in fatigue, anxiety, and irritability.
Fruity breakfast bowls
There's a place for antioxidant-rich fruits at breakfast—but fruit-based breakfast bowls often serve up portions big enough to feed a family. And, topped with novelties like granola, sweet coconut flakes, and honey, they often pack spoonfuls of sneaky sugar.
Ahh, coffee. For many (including myself), drinking a nice cup of joe is a favorite way to start the day. When we say coffee, however, it can mean a few things: a mug of pour-over served black, an almond milk cappuccino, or a sugary treat.
All right, all right, hear me out on this one! While few breakfast foods come together as quickly as cereal (just add milk!), the type of cereal you choose has important implications for your cognitive function throughout the rest of the day.
When it comes to cereal, I love a selection with whole grains, nuts, healthy fats, and tons of fiber to nourish the gut. Oftentimes, though, store-bought cereals offer little of these nutrients—a missed opportunity to fill up on brain-boosting nutrients first thing in the day. Try assembling your own homemade granola or cereal mix to control sugar and increase your nutrient intake.
While breakfast burritos can be made with healthy ingredients, the wrap itself introduces unnecessary simple carbs and refined starches. To make your burrito more brain-healthy, skip the wrap and eat your pasture-raised eggs scrambled with organic, non-GMO tofu, fresh vegetables, black beans, and a splash of tangy salsa.
I love low-glycemic fruits, such as berries, for their fiber and polyphenol benefits, as well as the gut-microbiome-supporting features of whole milk Greek yogurt (or a dairy-free alternative). However, fruit-flavored yogurt is another surreptitious source of sugar masquerading as a balanced breakfast.
It's important to check your nutrition labels: 4 grams of sugar is 1 teaspoon—so be careful you're not consuming 6 or 8 teaspoons of sugar in your supposedly "healthy" breakfast yogurt. I always recommend starting with whole, unsweetened yogurt, adding in chopped fruit of choice, and topping it with cinnamon and a drop of honey.
"The Detective," aka the doughnut-and-coffee combo
While easy, portable, and widely available, doughnuts and coffee do not provide a suitable foundation for sustained focus and mood during the day. Doughnuts are high in refined carbohydrates and often fried in inflammatory oils, which may set you up for brain fog in the short term and poorer memory outcomes in the longer term. Throw in a dose, or several, of caffeine, and you're starting your day with a seriously lopsided nutritional profile.
My work in nutritional psychiatry has made it clear to me that the quality of our breakfast is inextricably linked to the quality of our cognitive function throughout the whole day. Though popular choices may be easy to access, breakfasts like the ones above are low on my list of brain-healthy foods.
Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, nutritional biologist, professional chef, and author of the upcoming title, Calm Your Mind With Food, which is now available for preorder, as well as the international bestseller, This Is Your Brain on Food (An Indispensible Guide to the Surprising Foods that Fight Depression, Anxiety, PTSD, OCD, ADHD, and More).
She is currently the Founder and Director of Nutritional and Lifestyle Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), the first US clinic of its kind where she consults on nutritional interventions for the psychiatrically and medically ill. Naidoo is also a culinary instructor at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. She writes for Harvard Health and Psychology Today. She just completed her most recent project which is a unique video cooking series for the MGH Academy that teaches nutritional psychiatry using culinary techniques in the kitchen.