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Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Champions of Breakfast Say: Make a Meal of It

Yes, even leftover pizza can give the day a good start.
Yes, even leftover pizza can give the day a good start. (By Julia Ewan -- The Washington Post)
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By Jennifer Huget
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Perhaps you are reading this column over breakfast.

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We'll deal with the reading-while-you-eat issue another day. For now, it's good to know you're eating what many nutritionists consider the most important meal of the day. Breakfast is commonly credited with improving students' academic performance and adults' ability to be productive at work; it's also a cornerstone of many weight-loss programs.

But for all the belief in breakfast's benefits, there's surprisingly little science linking the morning meal to specific measures of good health. So says James Hill, president of the American Society for Nutrition (ASN). "There's some research suggesting breakfast is linked to better school performance, as a result of students' having more concentration and discipline," says Hill, a professor of pediatrics and medicine at the University of Colorado at Denver and director of the Center for Human Nutrition, funded by the National Institutes of Health. "But there's no definitive stuff out there."

"I don't know why we haven't done a big, randomized, controlled study" to determine whether eating breakfast really helps our health, Hill says. "It would seem like a very important question."

Hill has some anecdotal evidence, though: A co-founder of the National Weight Control Registry, a database of people who have lost weight and kept it off, he says "eating breakfast is one of the common characteristics of those people."

A study in the November issue of ASN's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, further explores that connection, suggesting that fueling up first thing in the morning might set the tone for the rest of the day's diet and influence how much we weigh.

Ashima K. Kant, a professor in the Department of Family, Nutrition and Exercise Sciences at the City University of New York's Queens College, led a team of researchers who looked at food and beverage consumption reported by 12,000 adults in a large federal study. The team found that women -- but not men -- who ate breakfast had lower BMIs (body-mass index measurements) than those who didn't.

The study also examined the energy density (ED) -- the calories per unit of weight -- of the foods and beverages participants consumed. People who ate high-ED breakfasts, which typically contain lots of fat and sugar and little fiber and water, tended to continue eating high-ED foods throughout the day, but they took in fewer micronutrients and tended not to eat from all five food groups. The higher the energy density of a man's breakfast, the higher his BMI; that didn't hold true for women, whose BMIs were linked to the energy density of the other meals they ate. Finally, people who ate breakfast consumed lower-ED foods throughout the rest of the day, overall, compared with those who didn't eat breakfast.

Kant is quick to point out that her study, like others in the field, simply observes relationships between breakfast-eating and other aspects of people's lives and doesn't establish any cause-and-effect relationships.

Still, its key messages are plain: "Eat breakfast, and choose lower-ED foods: fruit rather than a sweet roll," Hill says. But, he adds, "everybody can splurge once in a while. It's better to eat breakfast, no matter what you eat. Then, once you're a breakfast eater, you can work on improving your choices."

And what would those better choices be?

Angela Ginn-Meadow, a Baltimore-based spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, has some suggestions, many of which counter one of the most common excuses for skipping breakfast. "Breakfast takes time and planning," she says, "and with this fast-paced world we live in, time and planning go out the window."

For those who are time-strapped in the morning, Ginn-Meadow suggests keeping "quick fix" foods handy. "Ready-to-eat cereal, instant oatmeal, whole-grain frozen waffles, whole-grain bread for toast, yogurt, light canned fruit, 100 percent juice, milk, cheese and cottage cheese" are all nutritious and fast, she says. If you have a few minutes to spare, make a smoothie by whirling milk, fruit and bran in the blender. Put a slice of turkey or a scrambled egg on a whole-wheat English muffin and wash it down with vegetable juice. Or top your cereal with sliced strawberries and low-fat milk.

"A perfect breakfast includes something you enjoy, with all the nutrients, that energizes you for the day and satisfies hunger," Ginn-Meadow says. "Always include a whole grain, some lean protein or milk, and fruit."

And, yes, she reassures me, even leftover pizza can be a good breakfast: "Cold cheese or vegetable pizza plus a glass of juice can provide one grain serving, one-eighth of a vegetable serving, one-half of a dairy serving, and one whole fruit serving." (Plus, she says, pizza always tastes better the next day.)

As for those who argue that they're just not hungry in the morning, Ginn-Meadow recommends beating that barrier by starting small: just a glass of juice (real, 100 percent juice, please!) or a slice of whole-wheat toast. Gradually add to the menu: maybe some yogurt or a hard-cooked egg. You'll work your way up to cold pizza in no time.

Check out today's Checkup blog, in which Jennifer reports on ways to coax reluctant kids to eat breakfast. Sign up for our weekly Lean & Fit newsletter by going to http://washingtonpost.com and searching for "newsletters." And e-mail your thoughts to Jennifer at checkup@washpost.com.

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