If you want your brain to be alert, start the day with a healthful breakfast — you've heard that since grammar school. But when you're over 50, your brain must be on alert even before you sit down at the breakfast table: You can't just grab the nearest cereal box or whip up a batch of pancakes to start the day. Well, you can — but you need to make smart choices, and that's where we can help.
Studies show that, in addition to enhancing your brain power, making smart food choices in the a.m. can help fiftysomethings keep blood sugar on an even keel, lower cholesterol levels and ward off Type 2 diabetes. The tricky part is that your older body needs fewer calories — but it doesn’t need fewer nutrients. Your body won't be very forgiving if you feed it sugary buns, fried donuts or fatty breakfast sandwiches.
The solution: Remodel breakfast so that it’s nutrient-dense yet lean and light. When you do this, it will be just as flavorful, it not more so.
It’s not all that complicated. Just keep a few key points in mind:
- Don’t be too mingy with calories. Your body has fasted all night and now’s the time to refuel so that you have energy to start the day right. A lightly active fiftysomething woman can aim for 450 to 500 calories, which is what the sample breakfasts below provide. Men can add another 100 to 200 calories by increasing the portions.
- Always include a healthy amount of protein (at least 15 grams) and plenty of fiber, somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 to 10 grams.
- Stick with slow-digest carbs, like whole fruits and whole grains. (When you make the right food choices, you don't have to fret about carb count. Nor do you need to worry about the glycemic index on whole fruits. Yes, some fruits have a higher GI, but unless you have blood problems the point is to get away from fruit juices, which can be like sugary sodas. The combination of foods you eat at a meal is what matters.)
Here are five breakfasts that accomplish all of that. Use them as a template, which you can tweak to suit your tastes.
(More: The Fiftysomething Diet)
A Tastier, More Healthful Pancake
Treating yourself to a classic pancake-and-juice breakfast is a surefire way to spike blood sugar and kickstart a roller coaster ride of energy highs and lows. Blame it on all the refined carbs: white flour, sugary pancake syrup, sweet fruit juice.
The healthful alternative: Use a whole grain pancake mix. Our new favorite is Kodiak Cakes Frontier Waffle & Pancake Mix, a staple at Target grocery stores. Made with whole grain wheat and oat flours, the flavors are truly yummy. (Also good: Bob’s Red Mill Organic 7 Grain Pancake Mix and Hodgson Mill Whole Wheat Insta-Bake Pancake Mix. Bob's Red Mill has a flavorful gluten-free pancake mix, but it only has 2 grams of fiber.)
Instead of pouring on syrup, top the pancakes with fresh, cut-up fruit and plain yogurt. Or try the recipe below. If you prefer French toast, use a whole grain bread, preferably with at least 2 grams of fiber per slice. Top with yogurt and fruit. (Note: You can use any fruit here. Because you have the whole grains, protein and some fat, the glycemic load of the meal is fine.)
Banana Pancakes With Peanut Butter Whip
Add one tablespoon ground flaxseed (for heart-healthy plant-based omega 3 fats) to 1/3 cup of Frontier or another whole grain pancake mix. Stir in one-third cup of water (or a little more if you like thinner pancakes) and add a sliced banana, reserving a few pieces for garnish. Cook on a lightly oiled griddle or large pan. Top with two tablespoons of natural peanut butter that has been whipped with a beater or fork into 1/4 cup of fat-free plain Greek-style yogurt.
The numbers: 454 calories; 20g protein; 52g carbohydrates; 10g fiber; 23g fat; 4.9g saturated fat; 0mg cholesterol; 357mg sodium.
The Kicked-Up Egg Sandwich
Egg sandwiches are a go-to breakfast for those on the run. But when eggs are served in a fatty bread like a croissant, with add-ons like pork and cheese, they can rack up artery-clogging calories rather than providing clean fuel. Dunkin’ Donuts Sausage, Egg and Cheese Croissant, for example, delivers 710 calories and 49 grams of fat (20 grams of saturated fat). Burger King’s Double Croissan’wich with Double Sausage totals 660 calories and 48 grams fat (18 grams of saturated fat).
The healthful alternative: Make the egg sandwich at home. People without cholesterol issues can eat one egg per day or up to seven eggs per week without harm. And switch out the high-fat sausage and cheese for extras that deliver more nutrients, including vegetables like spinach, bell peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes. Opt for whole grain breads, such as whole wheat English muffins, whole wheat tortillas, whole wheat pita bread or gluten-free bread.
Egg and Avocado Breakfast Sandwich
Scramble one egg and two egg whites with a few tablespoons of chopped tomato. Drizzle 1/2 teaspoon of basil olive oil on the egg mixture. Layer onto a whole wheat English muffin or gluten-free roll drizzled with another 1/2 teaspoon of basil oil. Top with a few slices of avocado. Cut an orange into four wedges and serve on the side.
The numbers: 450 calories; 21g protein; 53g carbohydrates; 10g fiber; 19g fat; 3.6g saturated fat; 213mg cholesterol; 398mg sodium.
The Truth About Yogurt
It may have a squeaky-clean image as a health food, but regular yogurt is little more than liquid ice cream. One fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt we found has 28 grams of carbs and about seven teaspoons of sugar. Sugar-free varieties aren’t much better since they’re using artificial sweeteners — and studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may trigger cravings for more sugar.
The healthful alternative: Choose plain Greek yogurt. With double the protein of regular yogurts, it’s a low-carb dairy food that delivers calcium and lots of protein — without the sugar. Add your choice of fruit and some whole grains and you’ve got the perfect breakfast.
Raspberry Crunch Breakfast Parfait
Blend 3 tablespoons of toasted wheat germ with 2 tablespoons of toasted sunflower seeds. Then combine 1 1/4 cups of plain Greek yogurt and 1 cup of fresh or frozen raspberries, mashing the berries to tint and flavor the yogurt. Spoon one-third of the yogurt and berries into a parfait glass or bowl. Top with one-third of wheat germ mixture. Repeat layers.
The numbers: 456 calories; 40g protein; 52g carbohydrates; 14g fiber; 12g fat; 1.4g saturated fat; 0mg cholesterol; 120mg sodium.
(More: The Fiftysomething Diet: Workout Foods to Fuel Your Boomer Body)
Healthful Cereals That Will Bowl You Over
Shaking some cornflakes or those little round oat circles into a bowl with milk and chasing it with a glass of O.J. may have been the breakfast of champions in your younger years. But there you go again with the refined carbs and rapid-digest fruit sugars that send blood sugar levels up. That's something your fiftysomething body doesn’t handle as well as it did when it was twentysomething — before all those years of overworking the pancreas. Studies show breakfasting on low-glycemic carbs (whole grains and fruit) keeps blood sugar on an even keel, not just in the morning but throughout the day.
The healthful alternative: Zero in on whole-grain cereals that have at least five grams of fiber per serving. And tame the sweet tooth. Five or six grams of sugar per serving — a little over a teaspoon — is plenty in any form. Any more than that and you're eating cereal candy. Forgo the juice and cut up seasonal fruits or add berries, which deliver all the nutrients of juice as well as much-needed fiber to keep your digestive tract humming.
Ah, this one’s not much of a recipe. Just cut up one fresh peach and combine with one cup of Kashi Go Lean (we like that it has 10 grams of protein per cup, a rarity in the cereal world), 1/4 cup of chopped walnuts and 3/4 cup of skim or soy milk. Not grooving on this combo? Use pistachios and cherries. Bananas and almonds. Blueberries and pecans. It’s all good.
The numbers: 468 calories; 25g protein; 60g carbohydrates; 15g fiber; 21g fat; 2g saturated fat; 4mg cholesterol; 96mg sodium.
How to Make a Super Smoothie
The perfect grab-and-go breakfast, smoothies run the gamut from healthful to unwholesome. The drinks found in smoothie shops and fitness clubs typically sport much higher levels of sugar and carbs than homemade concoctions. The culprits include sweetened yogurt, sugar-laced fruit juice and the sugary syrups added for flavor.
The healthful alternative: Combine frozen fruit, or fresh fruit and ice, with protein powder and milk. Another option: a blend of skim milk, protein powder, peanut butter and ice.
Tropical Blast Smoothie
Place 1/2 cup each of frozen mango, pineapple and raspberries in a blender with one peeled kiwi, 3/4 cup of soy milk and 1 ounce of whey protein powder (Look for an unsweetened whey or vegetable protein powder). Blend. Drink the whole 28 ounces for a complete meal. Or drink half the mixture and add a couple of pieces of whole grain toast with nut butter.
The numbers: 469 calories in 2 cups; 34g protein; 57g carbohydrates; 9g fiber; 14g fat; 2g saturated fat; 53mg cholesterol; 137mg sodium.