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The Building Blocks of a Heart-Healthy Breakfast

UW Health dietitians offer suggestions for building a heart-healthy breakfast.

We’ve all heard it – breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And while there is some debate about that, there’s no question that starting your day off with a healthy meal – even if it is small – has a lot of benefits, including helping you practice self-control. And if you’re concerned about your heart health, it is especially important.

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“It’s rare to find a person who can avoid tempting snacks mid-morning, or choose a healthy lunch on an empty stomach,” says Alicia Bosscher, UW Health clinical nutritionist. “Most people who skip breakfast will experience low blood sugar, and it’s hard to make rational or healthy choices when your blood sugar is low.”

Bosscher works closely with patients who have either experienced a heart event, or are working to prevent one. And while the focus is often on a heart-healthy diet, there is another condition that is often interrelated – diabetes. She stresses that healthy eating habits are an important consideration for both, but it can be overwhelming to figure out what actually makes a healthy breakfast. From packaged foods that promise convenience and a full day’s supply of nutrients, to ever-popular smoothies, there are a variety of options – it’s just a matter of knowing what to look for.


Two Fundamental Building Blocks for a Healthy Breakfast

According to Bosscher, breakfasts should contain a few fundamental building blocks – and it starts with fiber, followed by protein.

“To me, the most important consideration is dietary fiber,” she says. “Whether it’s coming from whole grains like oats, fruit, or nuts and seeds, fiber is an important nutrient that is often overlooked.”

Fiber helps “clean out” bad cholesterol from the body and helps us feel full longer. Bosscher shares that she is always brainstorming with patients to identify ways to increase fiber in their diets. Breakfast cereals can be one source, but it’s important to look at the ratio between dietary fiber and sugar.

“A good guideline is no more than double the amount of sugar than there is fiber, or a 2 to 1 sugar to fiber ratio,” she explains. “And, it’s a good idea to make sure that the cereal you choose has 3 or more grams of fiber, otherwise you will feel hungry again very soon.”


Milk, Non-Dairy Milks and Yogurt

And as for the milk, she says non-dairy options are just fine but choose the unsweetened varieties. If you just can’t manage and need the sweetened ones, then be sure to count that within your day’s added sugar intake (24 grams for a woman and 36 grams for a man). It’s also important to be aware of some of the differences between the non-dairy milks. For example, coconut milk tends to be higher in saturated fat while almond milk actually has very little protein. She notes that most non-dairy milks are fortified with nutrients like calcium, so that does help a bit.

If you enjoy yogurt with your cereal, or even on its own, Bosscher recommends challenging yourself to try the plain variety, to help limit added sugar. It can take a little getting used to, but adding fresh, frozen or dried fruit and nuts can help.


Breakfast Bars

Breakfast bars, although convenient, also tend to lack fiber and that other important building block – protein.

“Like fiber, protein helps you feel fuller longer,” Bosscher comments. “And like cereal, it’s important to consider the amount of sugar – and breakfast bars tend to have too much.”

She acknowledges if it is a choice between a breakfast bar and nothing, go with the bar. But try to look for the kind with just nuts and fruit, or at least a short ingredient list. Bosscher notes that some bars are dipped in chocolate or other coatings and as a result have a high amount of saturated fat. A better option, she suggests, would be to prepare something small in advance – such as the No-Bake Energy Bites or Homemade Granola Bars from UW Health’s Learning Kitchen



Another popular on-the-go option is smoothies, but it’s important to consider the ingredients.

“I have three pieces of advice to keep the amount of sugar down,” comments Bosscher, explaining that they can quickly rival milkshakes depending on the ingredients used. Her three recommendations are:

1) No juice. Use milk or water for the liquid.
2) Limit fruit to 1-2 cups.
3) Always add a veggie, such as kale or frozen spinach.


She adds the recommendation of adding protein either from plain yogurt, peanut butter or unsweetened protein powder. It provides some “staying power” to the smoothie so you are not tempted by mid-morning snacks that weren’t in your plan for the day.


Vegetarian proteins like plain yogurt, cottage cheese, nuts or natural nut butters, and even hard boiled eggs can be a great addition to any breakfast. But breaking out of the traditional breakfast foods can help keep you interested in breakfast, and even help use up your leftovers. Consider chicken breast and potatoes from the night before. Or, try chia seed pudding or a quinoa bowl (like this Quinoa-Blueberry Bowl). For those light eaters, fresh fruit and a 1/4 cup of nuts such as almonds or pistachios, or perhaps avocado on toast are two easy ways to start the day off on the right foot.

For more breakfast ideas, check out UW Health's Great Beginnings board on Pinterest.


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Date Published: 02/22/2017

News tag(s):  healthy eatingnutritionwellnessheart healthy

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