Breakfast has been called the most important meal of the day. While every meal counts toward good nutrition, the facts are on the table. Eating in the morning has positive effects on everyone's health and on children's ability to learn.
But what's a nutritious breakfast? Experts say the healthiest route is to choose from at least two of the five food groups, but the truth is that noshing on nearly any food in the morning is better than nothing, especially for children.
Children who eat breakfast fare better in school and tend to have a healthier overall diet, says Sheah Rarback, a registered dietitian and pediatric specialist at the University of Miami School of Medicine.
"When you're hungry, it's harder to concentrate," Rarback says. "Studies show [that those who skip breakfast] are often more irritable and find it harder to pay attention."
Without the morning meal, kids are hard-pressed to meet their nutrient needs. A simple meal of fortified cereal with milk and orange juice provides all the vitamin C a child needs for the day, a third of his calcium requirement and substantial amounts of B vitamins, fiber and iron, helping to promote health and well-being.
"It makes sense that breakfast eaters may be healthier, stronger, have better endurance and a stronger immune system," Rarback says. "All of which positively affects kids' lives."
While many children do eat in the morning, it seems the older they get, the more often they skip breakfast, according to a National Dairy Council survey. In that regard, kids are like adults, who often sacrifice breakfast. Adults who regularly forgo breakfast may be hurting their health and compromising their concentration and memory powers.
Take weight control. Adults who skip breakfast usually have a harder time keeping off pounds. Why? Two reasons: They may eat more during the day to compensate for missing the morning meal, and they may have a slower calorie-burning capacity, since eating and digesting rev up metabolism.
It pays to eat breakfast if you want to reduce heart disease risk, studies show. That's because breakfast eaters often have lower blood cholesterol levels than those who skip. Of course, low-fat breakfast foods, such as grains, cereals, fruits and reduced-fat dairy are most heart-healthy, and saturated-fat-laden choices, including sausage, bacon and pastry, are least.
As with kids, eating breakfast helps keep adults sharp. When you forgo eating in the morning, blood glucose levels drop. Glucose is the fuel your cells need to function, and brain cells become sluggish when levels are low. Without adequate energy, your mind can get fuzzy, making it harder to concentrate and to remember.
With all the promise of the morning meal, why aren't you eating breakfast? Chances are, you're pressed for time, especially if you have kids. Simplify your morning routine with these tips:
* Get up 10 minutes earlier.
* Give up morning television and computer games in favor of concentrating on the task at hand: eating breakfast.
* Stock the kitchen with healthful, quick-to-fix breakfast foods, including cereal, frozen waffles and pancakes, milk, juice, cheese, bread, fruit and peanut butter.
* Have kids finish their homework and pack their school bags at night.
* Allow older children to use the microwave oven. Most breakfast foods can be prepared in five minutes or less.
Maybe you don't like traditional foods. These tips are for you.
* Split a bagel. Layer each half with peanut butter and raisins. Bring along a carton of milk.
* Warm up leftover pizza or eat it cold. Sip 8 ounces of juice.
* Combine a soft pretzel, string cheese and fresh fruit.
* Pair up 8 ounces of yogurt, a piece of toast and fruit juice.
* Have on hand hard-boiled eggs. Peel one before work and wrap in a plastic bag. Add a small roll and fruit.
* Heat a frozen pancake, spread with peanut butter, top with sliced banana and roll it up.
* Layer one or two slices of turkey breast and one slice of cheese on a tortilla. Roll it up. Serve with fruit juice or fruit.
Elizabeth Ward is a registered dietitian, author and nutrition consultant. Her latest book is the American Dietetic Assn.'s "Nutrition for a Healthy Pregnancy" (Chronimed Publishing), due out in June.
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When You Have More Time
* Concoct a breakfast parfait with layers of fruit yogurt, sliced fresh fruit and crunchy cereal. Kids love this in an ice cream cone.
* Swirl applesauce and raisins into hot oatmeal. Serve with 8 ounces of milk.
* Combine in a blender until frothy: 1/2 cup lemon yogurt, 1/2 cup milk, dash vanilla extract and two ice cubes. Complement with a slice of whole grain toast.
* Scramble an egg, stuff it into half a pita pocket and top with salsa. Sip juice or nibble fruit.
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* Food Allergy Network: (800) 929-4040. Web site: http://www.foodallergy.org.
* American Dietetic Assn. Nutrition hotline: (800) 366-1655 in English and Spanish. Web site: http://www.eatright.org.
* American Heart Assn.: (800) AHA-USA1. Web site: http://www.americanheart.org.
* American Diabetes Assn.: (213) 966-2890 serving California and Nevada. Web site: http://www.diabetes.org.
* Milk Processor Education Program: (800) WHY-MILK. Web site: http://www.whymilk.com.