You’ve heard it before – breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If your last meal the day before was around six or seven at night, then “stoking your metabolism” by introducing food in the morning when you wake up is crucial to boosting mental and physical energy levels. The breakfast food choices you make are also important. They can either support health and well-being, and your mental activities, or do quite the opposite. New research suggests that what you choose to eat may also influence decision-making throughout the day.
If you know anything about carbohydrates (grain-based foods), you know that refined grains can boost blood sugar quickly, and that blood-sugar high is usually followed by a crash or rapid decline in blood-sugar levels. Simple, whole grains that are less refined tend to offer modulated blood-sugar increases and declines. There’s been a general push by health experts either to limit consumption of refined grains or to always eat a grain product with a protein or fat, in order to moderate the impact of the digested sugars on blood-sugar level. A diet high in refined carbs is also credited with contributing to obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Still, diets like the original Atkin’s low-carb diet and even certain version of the Paleo diet may not be healthy because of higher levels of saturated fat (from meats).
This new research found that a low-carb breakfast might make you more of a tolerant person. The theory is that eating low carb usually means eating more protein, and protein-rich meals boost dopamine in the brain. Specifically, proteins are broken down by digestion into amino acids, and amino acids target dopamine levels. Dopamine is involved in decision-making. The researchers wanted to see if a low-carb breakfast could actually influence or change decision-making.
The researchers paired up individuals and polled them all to see what they had for breakfast. The subjects then played an “ultimatum game” in which one individual (leader) from each pair was given money and instructions to decide how much of the money they would share with their partner. If the partner accepted the offer, both got the cash. If the partner rejected the leader’s offer, neither received any money.
The researchers found that “partners” who ate a low-carb breakfast were more likely to accept unfair or lowball offers. In fact, 76 percent of the partners accepted a lowball offer from their team leader, compared with only 46 percent of partners who consumed a high-carb breakfast.
In the second round of the research, 24 subjects came in to eat one of two breakfasts prepared by the researchers. One breakfast was a high-carb meal of bread, jam and fruit juice. The low-carb breakfast included ham, cheese and milk. The teams played the ultimatum game. The next day, the breakfasts were swapped and the same 24 individuals played the game again. The researchers found that overall, the subjects were more forgiving when they ate the low-carb meal. Blood tests confirmed that the low-carb meal raised levels of tyrosine, a precursor to dopamine, and high tyrosine levels were correlated with forgiving behavior. No link was ascribed to blood-sugar levels, which were also measured.
The researchers postulated that the higher dopamine levels either allowed the subjects to value a feeling of reward, even with lower dollar amounts being offered, or made them feel less aggressive and more rational and therefore willing to accept even “lowball” monetary offers. Whatever the reason, there did seem to be a direct influence on decision-making. Limitations included the small number of subjects and the fact that other nutrients, like fats, were not controlled for.
If you are going to choose a “breakfast of champions,” a breakfast that has balanced components of healthy ingredients, aim for about 300 to 400 calories. If you are eating “low carb,” you should still include a serving of some type of carbohydrate (grain, fruit, or vegetable) as a source of energy. Consider creating menu plans using some of the following food group ingredients:
Choose whole grains and unrefined carbohydrates:
Best choices: Whole wheat or multigrain bread, brown rice, bran cereals, oatmeal. Ancient grains like amaranth, teff, freekeh, chia seeds, farro, spelt, and protein-rich quinoa can also be used in pancakes, muffins, breads, and certain cereals.
Why they’re good for you: These carbs are high in fiber, which means you’ll avoid dramatic blood-sugar highs and lows.
Worst choices: White breads and grains, processed baked goods, sugary processed cereals, refined frozen processed pancakes and waffles
Why they’re bad for you: Devoid of nutrients and fiber, your blood sugar will spike and then crash.
Choose smart proteins:
Best choices: Legumes like soybeans (veggie burgers), lentils, peas, and peanuts
Why they’re good for you: High in plant-based protein and low in saturated fat, they also offer fiber, iron, vitamin C, and folate.
Best choice: Eggs
Why they’re good for you: Egg whites or whole eggs fill you up but are relatively low in calories.
Worst choices: Deli and cured meats, smoked fishes, frozen breakfast entrees
Why they’re bad for you: Full of sodium and cancer-causing nitrites
Best choice: Nutrition bars
Why they can be good for you: If you’re on the go, you can grab this portable breakfast option, but choose bars with a short ingredient list made from real food ingredients with no added sugars.
Worst choices: Granola bars, cereal bars and highly processed nutrition bars with a long list of ingredients, chemicals and preservatives, and added sugars.
Best choices: There are really no bad choices in this food group.
Why they’re good for you: Full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Worst choices: Fruit juices
Why they’re bad for you: High in calories per serving and sans all the fiber.
Best choices: There are no bad choices.
Why they’re good for you: Fiber makes them filling, and they are full of vitamins and nutrients.
Worst choices: Fried potatoes, which offer artery-clogging saturated or trans fats and a heavy dose of calories.
Choose low-fat or fat-free dairy:
Best choices: Fortified milk, fortified “milk-like products” like soymilk, pea-based milk
Why they’re good for you: You get calcium, vitamin D, and magnesium, and milk is a filling protein
Worst choices: Milk substitutes like nut milks and rice milk and flavored milks
Why they’re bad for you: They aren’t fortified and contain very little of the highlighted ingredient, or they include a hefty dose of sugar.
Best choices: Greek yogurts (unsweetened), low-fat cottage cheese (low sodium), light or part-skim mozzarella cheese
Why they’re good for you: Lower in fat but filling, full of probiotics (yogurt), calcium-rich
Here are some easy recipe ideas for champion health and decision-boosting breakfasts:
- A cup of cereal or serving of oatmeal with fruit and nuts on top mixed with milk or yogurt
- One or two whole-grain pancakes with fruit, nuts and a latte
- Half a small melon filled with yogurt, nuts and cottage cheese
- A whole-grain or low-carb tortilla, topped with light mozzarella cheese, cut-up vegetables, soybeans and a latte
- A whole-grain English muffin topped with soy or turkey bacon (watch the sodium) and a side of fruit with a soy latte
- An egg white or egg omelet made with (optional light cheese and) vegetables with a serving of fruit or grain on the side
- A whole-grain piece of toast or waffle with unprocessed nut butter and banana slices and a cup of milk
- A homemade muffin made with whole-grain flour, nuts and berries and a small side of Greek yogurt
- A smoothie made with protein powder, fortified milk (or milk-like products) or yogurt, fruit
- Choose nutrition bars carefully, since many are highly processed and full of sugar, but you can occasionally have a “simple ingredient” protein bar (around 200 calories) with a piece of fruit and a latte or cup of milk.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”