We always hear breakfast is the most important meal of the day. But while eating something is almost always better than skipping the first meal entirely, not all breakfast foods are created equal.
We chatted with registered dietitian Carlene Helble Thomas to get the scoop on what is truly the best fuel to start the day. She compared the nutritional value of ten common breakfast foods. Read on for which items came out on top, plus tips for making the less healthy choices more nutritious.
Homemade Fruit Smoothie vs. Fruit Bowl
Estimated calories: 200 (smoothie with 1 banana, ½ cup Chobani yogurt, and 8 medium strawberries); 120 (1½ cups assorted fruit)
Winner: Homemade smoothie. “A smoothie is more balanced than plain fruit for a meal,” says Thomas. “It has protein to keep you full, plus a variety of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, depending on the ingredients you select. You can even add spinach to your smoothie to get in a veggie before 8 AM.
How to make a fruit bowl healthier: Pair with Greek yogurt to make a parfait, or have it over oatmeal or quinoa. “A bowl of fruit is missing protein and fat for a balanced breakfast. While a bowl of fruit is an amazing nutritious addition to any meal or snack, it’s not enough for a meal on its own, as it won’t keep you full very long,” says Thomas.
Oatmeal vs. Greek Yogurt
Estimated calories: 170 (steel-cut oats) or 130 (instant oatmeal); 140 (1 cup fat-free Greek yogurt)
Winner: Greek yogurt. Fat-free Greek yogurt is “packed with protein, has no added sugar, and is an excellent source of low-fat calcium for strong bones. You’ll definitely feel full and focused to start your morning,” says Thomas.
How to make oatmeal healthier: Make steel-cut or overnight oats for added fiber and protein, and top with a banana or berries. “The majority of the population uses instant or quick oatmeal for breakfast,” says Thomas. “While it’s convenient, you miss out on a ton of fiber and protein that comes with steel-cut oats. Instant oatmeal has about 12 grams of added sugar before you even touch it. It’s low on fiber and has less than three grams of protein—one serving of Greek yogurt has 23 grams.”
Peanut Butter on Whole Wheat Toast vs. Turkey Sausage on Whole Wheat English Muffin
Estimated calories: 185 (1 tablespoon peanut butter on whole wheat toast); 250 (2 turkey sausage patties and whole wheat English muffin)
Winner: Peanut butter on whole wheat toast. “Whole grains have important B vitamins, which are good for a healthy metabolism. When you add peanut butter as a healthy fat, you’re also getting heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and the antioxidant vitamin E,” says Thomas.
How to make the sausage sandwich a better choice: “Skip the sausage altogether, as it is high in sodium and saturated fat,” says Thomas. Instead, try a whole wheat English muffin with a scrambled egg, a slice of tomato, and sautéed spinach.
Scrambled Eggs vs. Special K Cereal
Estimated calories: 140 (for 2 scrambled eggs); 150 (1 cup Special K and ½ cup skim milk)
Winner: Scrambled eggs. “Scrambled eggs are less processed than a diet cereal and have important nutrients such as choline for brain [health],” says Thomas. “Eggs are one of the most complete sources of protein nature has to offer.”
How to make Special K healthier: Add sliced fruit to your cereal for more fiber. “Special K, and many [other brands of] cereal, is very processed. With only one gram of fiber per serving, you’re probably going to be hungry soon after breakfast,” says Thomas.
Bagel vs. Pancake
Estimated calories: 260 (one Einstein Brothers bagel); 200 (2⁄3 cup pancake batter, not including syrup)
Winner: Neither. “Both pancakes and bagels are high in refined flour, which has important B vitamins removed,” says Thomas. “The toppings can also blow your healthy eating habits, as bagels typically come slathered in cream cheese and pancakes come with empty-calorie syrup.”
How to make both healthier: Choose a whole wheat bagel topped with hummus, or make whole wheat pancakes topped with fresh fruit. “Size is everything when it comes to bagels and pancakes,” says Thomas. “Make sure you’re only eating one serving, and not a whole bagel, which may be up to three servings.”
Thomas added that all five of these suggested breakfasts should only be one part of a healthy morning meal for the average person. She says that based on a 2,000 calorie diet, breakfast should be approximately 550 calories. “A balanced breakfast helps us avoid overeating later in the day and fuel brain power we need for work,” says Thomas. “My ideal breakfast would be a scrambled egg with spinach and tomatoes, plus whole wheat toast and a side of fruit.”