Most people like to eat. Many even look forward to it, carefully planning their lunch; making dinner plans weeks in advance. But, for some reason, breakfast seems to be a bit of an issue – especially for kids. Some just aren’t hungry, while others would rather sleep.
Whether breakfast is the most important meal of the day is debatable, but what isn’t, is the fact that brains function better when they’re fed.
While any food might be better than none at all, there are certain foods that can enhance mental performance and cognitive function. In honor of going back to school, here are the nutrients that will give your brain the best possible start to the day.
Neurotransmitters are chemicals in our brains that affect the way we think and feel. What we eat plays a large role in how our bodies make these chemicals.
Ever eaten a large bowl of pasta and immediately felt happy and content, but soon after felt sluggish and in need of a nap? Carbohydrates increase our brain’s level of serotonin, the neurotransmitter responsible for making us feel positive, relaxed, and helping to initiate sleep.
Protein, on the other hand, increases levels of dopamine and noradrenaline, which help us feel alert and energized. Unfortunately, many traditional breakfast foods are heavy on the carbs and not much else. To make sure you’re getting plenty of energizing neurotransmitters, aim to eat about .5g of protein for every pound of body weight throughout the day, and at least a quarter of those grams at breakfast. For a 100-pound child, this would be about 10-12 grams of protein.
Fat – saturated to be exact – is one of the main components of brain cells, and the brain itself is composed of 60% fat. We need fat to help absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, which have been shown influence cognitive function. Vitamin D status, in particular, has been associated with positive mood.
Dietary fat also helps keep our blood sugar stable by slowing how fast sugar enters our bloodstream. If you’ve ever experienced the emotional face-plant that accompanies low blood sugar (otherwise known as “hanger”), you know blood sugar is closely tied to brain function.
Like hunger, hormones play a major role in our mental and emotional state – as any tween can attest – and we need fat to make hormones.
WHAT NOT TO EAT
If fat and protein promote stable, focused brain function, some foods promote just the opposite. The three main offenders are sugar, caffeine, and artificial sweeteners.
Both caffeine and sugar found in simple carbohydrates including white bread, soda, fruit juice, pastries, jellies, and syrups, can cause radical highs and lows in your blood sugar, leaving you grumpy, foggy headed, and tired. Additionally, caffeine has been shown to suppress serotonin in animal studies. This could result in feelings of negativity, obsessiveness, worry, irritability, and sleeplessness.
Artificial sweeteners can be just as bad (if not worse) than regular sugar. Some research shows that they may alter our gut bacteria, which can lead to changes in mood and overall mental health.
7 EASY BREAKFAST HACKS
We know not everyone is going to sit down to a plate of pastured bacon and eggs every morning. Unfortunately, most grab-n-go breakfast foods are low in protein and fat, and high in sugar.
Here are seven easy ways you can hack your current breakfast (or lack thereof) to make sure you get these brain-boosting nutrients.
- Egg muffins
If you can’t do the whole bacon and egg sit-down, egg muffins are the next best thing. The Internet has about a bajillion recipes, but, basically, you mix together eggs, other tasty ingredients of your choice, pour the mixture into a muffin tin and bake. These will keep in the refrigerator for up to a week. Pop one or two into the oven or microwave, wrap in a paper towel, and go. Here is one of our favorite recipes.
- Add whole milk to your cereal
A super easy way to add fat and protein to your breakfast is to swap skim milk for whole milk. This delivers the same amount of protein (8g) and carbs (13g), with 8g of fat. If you don’t do dairy, try hemp milk, or blend full-fat coconut milk with a little water. Check out this article for how to pick the best milk.
- Swap jelly for nut butter
Although it does contain fruit, jelly is nearly all sugar. We recommend you ditch the jelly and spread some nut butter, like peanut or almond butter, on your toast. Although nut butter typically contains only 2-3g of protein, you will get a generous serving of fat. If you can’t totally sacrifice your Smuckers, try just a thin layer, in addition to the nut butter.
- Swap regular bread for sprouted bread
If you’re blessed with more adventurous eaters in your household, try sprouted bread, which delivers twice the protein of regular bread. Read more how to choose the healthiest kind of bread.
- Add an egg to your toast
This breakfast classic, sometimes known as “bird in the nest”, “toad in the hole”, or “egg in a basket”, is easy and fast. You only need about eight minutes, one slice of bread, butter, and one egg.
Instructions: Butter both sides of your bread. Then tear a hole out of the center of your bread. Place the bread in a skillet on medium heat. Crack your egg over the hole and fry until cooked through on both sides.
- Add an egg to your oats
If you cook your oatmeal on the stovetop, stir in an egg while your oats are cooking. By the time they’re done, you’re your egg will be cooked, and you’ll have added five more grams of fat and six more grams of protein.
- Choose a full-fat yogurt.
Most brands have around 8-10g fat. If you go with a Greek variety, you can also get up to 20g of protein. We recommend going with plain and adding your own toppings. If you choose a flavored kind, aim for one that has no more than 15-17g of sugar per serving. Our favorite brands include:
- Wallababy Organic
- Green Valley Organics
- Straus Creamery
- Redwood Hill Farm
- Horizon Organic
- Try a bar
Meal replacement bars can be a great option for nutrition on the go. When picking out a bar, make sure yours has least 7g of protein and 8g of fat. And buyer beware: many brands that advertise a high protein content can be filled with wacko, heavily processed protein powders. As always, check ingredient labels, and steer clear of any lists that are longer than your arm. Some of our favorite bars are:
- Rise Bar
- Good OnYa Bar
- NuGo Organic
- Carve Bar
- Kind Strong Bar or Kind + Protein
- Epic Bars
Know anyone who could use some breakfast inspiration? Share this with them!
What’s your breakfast routine? Any other early morning hacks or meal on-the-go options? We’d love to hear in the comments!
Posted on September 9, 2015