Eating a healthy breakfast provides energy to start the day and is important for weight control. In children, a healthy breakfast is essential for proper growth and development and is linked to improved attention and learning in school. Breakfast is often thought of as the most important meal of the day, for good reason. Unfortunately, many common breakfast foods are more similar to candy and soda than a healthy meal to start the day. This is the topic of my Health & Fitness column in the Aiken Standard this week.
Some popular breakfast foods targeted at children include sugar-sweetened cereals, pastries, and bars, many of which look like candy or dessert. Pop Tarts and some granola bars are covered in frosting and favorite cereals often contain marshmallows, chocolate, or are shaped like cookies. No surprise that these foods are as high in calories and sugar as cookies or some candy bars!
Unhealthy choices sometimes come disguised as something healthy—juice. Many “fruit” drinks contain less than 5% juice but plenty of added sugar, so they are essentially soda without bubbles. For example, the orange drink Sunny D is a popular substitute for orange juice, but it is far from a nutritional equivalent. The same is true for other drinks, including juice boxes and pouches, that are commonly part of breakfast or snacks.
Even though the sugar and caloric content of these drinks is comparable to real fruit juice, consuming food and beverages that are flavored like fruit but are actually much sweeter may make real fruit less palatable. Children may develop an expectation that oranges or orange juice should taste as sweet as Sunny D and prefer the sugar-sweetened version over the real fruit. The same is true for food, too. A child who is used to breakfast or snack foods that taste like candy or cookies may resist real food when it is offered.
This really isn’t much different for adults. Breakfast foods like donuts and pastries are almost always topped with icing and it would be difficult to distinguish many muffins from cupcakes. For many people, coffee isn’t just coffee anymore, but a drink that contains as much sugar and as many calories as a milkshake, sometimes with whipped cream on top.
One of the biggest offenders for both children and adults is yogurt. Low-fat and fat-free flavored yogurt is almost always sweetened with sugar. This is true for the yogurt tubes that kids love and the Greek yogurt that is widely thought to be healthy. Sure, it contains protein and bacteria that seem to be beneficial, but the added sugar makes it equivalent in terms of calories and sugar to frozen yogurt or ice cream. Some of these yogurts even come with toppings, like bits of chocolate, just like fro-yo!
The good news is that you can make your breakfast healthier without too much effort. While there is much debate about what constitutes a healthy breakfast, there is agreement about what it doesn’t include—lots of added sugar! Look for cereals that are low in added sugars and high in fiber. Include real fruit, fruit juice, and milk (or soy milk) whenever possible. If you have time, eggs are an excellent source of protein and healthy fats. Yogurt is good, too, but watch out for added sugars in flavored yogurt. Whole grain toast or a bagel with peanut butter (or other nut butter) makes a good alternative to Pop Tarts or breakfast bars.
As a general rule, steer clear of foods that look like dessert. Marshmallows, chocolate chips, and frosting are best left for after a healthy meal, not a replacement for it.