Why a good breakfast is good for your brain – and your heart

breakfast bowl

“Breakfast is your brain meal!” claims Vancouver educator Terry Small, aka the Brain Guy. He once did a small and very unscientific two-week experiment on himself, just to test his theory that – as your mother always told you – breakfast is the most important meal of the day. If you still need convincing, you might want to try this experiment, too.

smart choices compared to whatFor Week #1, eat your normal low-fibre, low-protein, highly-processed breakfast every morning – like a gooey Maple Dip from Tim Hortons, for example. Or how about a nice big bowl of Froot Loops (the ones with that now-moribund Smart Choices healthy food symbol on the box)? The symbol apparently recommended this junk cereal to health-conscious American consumers until the entire program was yanked last month.

Dr. Eileen Kennedy, the Dean of Tufts University’s Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, in a stupefyingly bizarre statement to the New York Times, defended the Smart Choices logo on Froot Loops because it was “based on government dietary guidelines and widely accepted nutritional standards”.  (Widely accepted on what planet, Dr. Kennedy?) 

A serving of Froot Loops is 41% sugar by weight – more than most packaged cookies. She also said Froot Loops were “better than other breakfast foods parents could choose for their children”. I am not making this up! Dr. Kennedy, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket, explained:

“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids, and you have a choice between a donut and a cereal. So Froot Loops is a better choice.”   

In Canada, we have something called the Health Check symbol on over 1,500 grocery store items – which may be just as suspect, given their loosey-goosey nutritional criteria, and the fact that manufacturers pay cash for the privilege of slapping the symbol on often surprisingly high-salt, high-sugar, high-fat grocery products.

But I digress. For Week #2, no more Froot Loops! Instead, have a healthy breakfast each day, like Terry Small’s favourite “Brain Breakfast” below, about which he promises:

“You will never go back! I found the difference to be profound.”

Terry explains that throughout the brain, biochemical messengers called neurotransmitters help the brain make the right connections. Food influences how these neurotransmitters operate.

The more balanced the breakfast, the better these neurotransmitters can function. A breakfast with the right balance of complex carbohydrates and proteins helps to usher the amino acids from neurostimulants containing the protein tyrosine into the brain, so that the neurotransmitters can work better.

But it’s not just your brain that benefits from a healthy breakfast.

A 2007 study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that those who ate a breakfast consisting of whole grains had a 29% lower risk of heart failure.

The National Weight Control Registry, which follows participants who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off at least one year (also good for heart health), found that 80% of those in the Registry regularly eat breakfasts with protein and/or whole grains.

And those who skip breakfast are even more likely to have higher LDL (bad) cholesterol levels than breakfast eaters. This difference is greater when breakfast skippers are compared to people who eat whole grain cereals at breakfast. The reason may be because people who eat healthy breakfasts regularly eat less fat and more fibre – patterns that are actually protective for the heart.

In fact, eating a bowl of hot oatmeal each day means you’re eating 3 grams of soluble fibre – beta glucan – the minimum daily amount that has been shown  to lower LDL cholesterol.  If you prefer uncooked breakfast cereals, look on the nutrition information panel for:

  • –  fibre at more than 3 grams per serving
  • –  sugar at less than 6 grams per serving
  • –  no artificial colors (Yellow 5, Red 40, etc.)
  • –  no partially hydrogenated oils
  • –  all other fortifications (B vitamins, etc.) are nice to have, but very similar across the board

“Breakfast” means just that: break the overnight fast. If your hectic household has a morning rush hour, you may feel that you don’t have time for a heart-healthy breakfast. But that morning stress can actually increase the levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream – hormones like cortisol that can increase carbohydrate cravings throughout the rest of your day and threaten your heart health.

Dietician Sandy Zobell recommends these good choices for breakfast:

  • whole grain ready-to-eat cereal with fat-free milk plus whole fruit or 100% fruit juice
  • one poached or boiled egg, whole grain toast and a glass of reduced-sodium tomato juice
  • cooked oatmeal made with fat-free milk, chopped apples and walnuts
  • whole grain waffle with sliced strawberries, dollop of low-fat yogurt and sprinkled almonds

If this list makes you yawn, consider Sandy’s picks for non-traditional breakfast choices:

  • last night’s heart-healthy dinner leftovers, plus a tangerine
  • whole wheat tortilla wrapped around a low-fat cheese stick, plus an apple
  • baked potato with leftover broccoli and sprinkle of parmesan cheese, plus fat-free milk

As promised, here’s the Brain Guy Terry Small’s favourite:

The Brain Guy’s “Brain Breakfast”

  1. a quantity of plain, good quality yogurt
  2. a quantity of fresh or frozen blue berries (also known as brain berries)
  3. a teaspoon of pure vanilla (raises serotonin levels in your brain)

Stir the vanilla into the yogurt; add blueberries; sprinkle crushed unsalted walnuts or almonds on top; then sprinkle with cinnamon (balances blood sugar)

Learn how Froot Loops won the Smart Choices healthy food designation in this New York Times article.

3 thoughts on “Why a good breakfast is good for your brain – and your heart

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