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Power up your day — and get the nutrients you need to stay active — right when you wake up.
A full night’s rest helps you wake up well. But what you eat for breakfast can also make a big difference between feeling energized or sluggish later in the day.
Everyone’s ideal morning bite doesn’t follow the same template. “Breakfast is a very individual thing,” says Angel Planells, M.S., R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics who specializes in aging and nutrition.
Older adults, in particular, need to consider personal factors like activity level, health concerns, digestive issues and potential medication interactions. “The right breakfast depends on the specific situation in everyone’s life,” says Planells.
That said, Planells recommends all people include some protein and fat in their breakfast menu “so you can get some fuel and feel satisfied.”
Consider these 11 foods the recipe for a happier, healthier morning. Plus, learn which foods to avoid.
Morning Fuel #1: Eggs
There’s been controversy in recent years around eggs and how healthy they are, but they’re a nutritional powerhouse, according to Planells.
Eggs are packed with high-quality protein, vitamins and minerals. “You also get the nutrients lutein and zeaxanthin, which are great for your eyes, and choline which is beneficial for our brain and nervous system,” he says.
If you’re not thrilled about turning on the stove before noon, make a big batch of hard-boiled eggs ahead of time, and then you can grab and go in the morning.
Morning Fuel #2: Yogurt
Yogurt is another protein-rich choice that can give you lasting energy. It’s also an easy way to get more calcium and vitamin D in your diet, both of which can help protect your bone mass.
Most yogurts also contain what’s known as “live cultures.” These are beneficial probiotic bacteria that have been shown to help support a healthy immune system. A 2015 study in the Annals of Medicine found that probiotics in yogurt can help lower total and LDL (aka “bad”) cholesterol, as well as improve inflammatory markers that contribute to heart disease.
When you’re shopping for yogurt, choose a plain, unsweetened variety instead of a flavored one, which tends to be packed with sugar. Top it with fruit and some high-fiber, low-sugar cereal, and your day just got a whole lot better. (If you’ve got a sweet tooth and fruit alone won’t satisfy it, add a drizzle of maple syrup or honey.)
Morning Fuel #3: Peanut Butter
This beloved spread is often overlooked as a breakfast food, but it’s low-carb and won’t lead to a spike in blood sugar, so it’s a good choice for those with type 2 diabetes.
Peanut butter is also high in heart-healthy, monounsaturated fat and contains a number of vitamins and minerals. Plus, for a plant-based food, it’s a fine source of protein.
The catch? You need to be choosy with the type of peanut butter you buy. Many varieties have gobs of added sugar and not-so-healthy fats. Check the labels and look for natural varieties that contain roasted peanuts and not much else.
If you’re a bagel person, choose one that’s 100% whole grain and swap the usual cream cheese for peanut butter. Or kick off the day with a twist on the PB&J sandwich: Skip the sugar-laden jelly in favor of a sliced banana or some chopped dates for the sweetness without added sugars.
Morning Fuel #4: Spinach
Eggs combined with Popeye’s favorite are a taste sensation, says Planells. Simply toss a little baby spinach into the skillet as you scramble your eggs, or add it to a frittata, omelet or breakfast sandwich.
If you take a blood thinner, you may have heard that you can’t eat leafy greens. Spinach, kale, broccoli and other green vegetables contain vitamin K, which aids in clotting. Therefore, patients on anti-clotting medications are often still advised to limit the amount of foods with the vitamin.
But Planells says that’s not exactly the right takeaway. “It’s not that we can’t have them, but we need to go for consistency.” In other words, you should eat about the same amount of greens every day.
Why does the same daily amount matter? A 2019 study presented at the American Society for Nutrition conference suggests that eating more, not less, green veggies with vitamin K may actually prove beneficial for people taking blood thinners. The study’s author explains that “it’s important that the higher daily vitamin K intake be as consistent as possible” to avoid skewing the efficiency of the medication.
If you’re on a blood thinner, talk to your doctor or a registered dietitian for guidance on including leafy greens in your diet.
Morning Fuel #5: Salad
Don’t love typical morning fare? Salad doesn’t have to be a lunch-only event. In fact, “most Americans struggle when it comes to getting their vegetables — the average person consumes only one serving per day,” says Planells. A simple breakfast salad is an easy way to get a head start.
If you’re not sure what to toss in the bowl, poached and fried eggs pair well with a garden or Caesar salad. Or consider reimagining a classic morning meal like granola and fruit as a salad: Start with your favorite greens, add a diced apple and sliced grapes, sprinkle with granola and toss with a fruity dressing, such as one made with apple cider vinegar and yogurt.
Morning Fuel #6: Berries
They may be little, but berries pack a ton of nutritional value and are full of vitamins and disease-fighting antioxidants. Their sweet, juicy flavor really shines at breakfast when you’re looking for that extra wake-me-up jolt, says Planells.
They’re also versatile, so you can add them to almost anything you want to eat — oatmeal, cereal, yogurt, pancakes or even on top of a bagel with peanut butter or cream cheese.
One more thing berries have going for them? Fiber. “As we age, we tend to need more fiber to aid [with] digestion,” says Planells. “A few strawberries or blueberries can help get your fiber up.”
Morning Fuel #7: Smoothies
It’s true that café and restaurant smoothies are usually packed with sugar and are not especially healthy. But at home? “Smoothies can be a great option for breakfast,” says Planells.
That’s because you’re in control of what goes in the blender. Make a smoothie that lives up to its full nutrition potential by adding fruits, yogurt and peanut butter. Find five tasty recipes here.
“You’ll have yourself some dairy, protein and fat,” he says. Bonus points if you throw in a handful of kale or spinach. (Really, you’ll hardly taste it.)
Morning Fuel #8: Whole Grains
Oatmeal is the go-to breakfast grain, but oats aren’t the only whole-grain food that can power your morning. Others, like quinoa and kamut, offer plenty of protein and fill you up with fiber. Eating more whole grains and high-fiber foods can help older adults lower their cholesterol, control their blood sugar and keep their digestive system happy, says Planells.
She recommends adding milk to the cooked grains and enjoying them hot or cold. Whether you’re trying a new grain type or sticking with tried-and-true oatmeal, there’s no need to settle for bland or boring.
To liven up your bowl, Planells offers a few easy suggestions:
- Add a sliced banana for natural sweetness.
- Throw in apples and spices “to help give it some crunch and flavor.”
- Cook the oats in milk or whisk in an egg for extra protein.
Morning Fuel #9: Latte
We’re guessing this is welcome news: Your morning cup of coffee can have benefits for your body, says Planells.
Yes, the caffeine in coffee can temporarily raise your blood pressure, but the Mayo Clinic notes that coffee has health perks for older adults. One 2018 review of studies suggests that drinking coffee helps improve risk factors for cardiovascular disease. And a 2017 review proposes that coffee offers some protection against certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, Parkinson’s disease and more.
If you’re a fan of coffee, choose one that has some nutritional benefit over something that’s just sugary, says Planells. For example, a latte (espresso with steamed milk) is better than a frappé (a cold coffee drink with tons of sugar and toppings).
Morning Fuel #10: Water
After that coffee, down some H2O. People over 65 don’t always get all the fluids they need during the day, so improve your hydration status by drinking water or 100% fruit juice (with no added sugar) first thing in the morning, Planells suggests.
This is doubly important if you’re taking steps to increase your fiber intake. The more fiber you add to your diet, he says, the more liquids you need to help that fiber do its job: keep your digestion running smoothly.
Morning Fuel #11: Olive Oil
Olive oil comes in handy — and is healthy — when cooking eggs or veggies for breakfast, says Planells. In addition to adding it to the frying pan, try drizzling olive oil on top of whole-grain toast and topping it with sliced tomatoes or a mashed avocado.
Many people are unnecessarily afraid of healthy fats, because they’ve been conditioned to think of all fats as bad or high in calories. “But a little olive oil brings health benefits,” he says. “Olive oil is good for your heart and brain health, and it’s beneficial for your eyes, because it helps with vitamin A absorption.”
3 Foods to Avoid in the Morning
So now that you know some great breakfast options, it’s time to learn which to avoid, or at least limit. While Planells stresses that all foods, in moderation, can fit into a healthy nutrition plan, there are some common breakfast foods to take out of regular rotation.
1. Pastries. A sweet pastry as a wingman to your morning coffee can be a delight, but it’s not good fuel for the day. “A doughnut tastes great, but within 10 to 15 minutes, your body will ask, ‘Hey what’s next? I’m still hungry,’” says Planells. There’s barely any belly-filling fiber and the carbs spike your blood sugar, leaving you craving more when it comes crashing down.
2. White bread. This often includes toast, bagels, English muffins and biscuits — anything made from refined white flour. Like doughnuts, these foods spike your blood sugar, causing energy dips later in the day, says Planells. That’s especially true if they aren’t combined with other, more nutritious breakfast foods.
3. Grapefruit. Cholesterol-lowering statins are one of the most common medications for older adults: Half of men, and nearly as many women, between the ages of 65 and 74 take them. If you’re one of them, Planells says it’s important to avoid grapefruit and grapefruit juice, which interfere with the drug’s effectiveness. If you’re not taking a statin, or are unsure, ask your primary care provider or pharmacist if it is safe for you to have grapefruit.
Another no-no in the morning? Skipping breakfast. Even if you don’t feel hungry in the morning, you should eat something light anyway. “Breakfast primes our body and gets us ready for the day,” Planells says. “If we skip it, our choices later in the day may suffer.”
Build a Better Breakfast
Kicking your day off on a healthy note doesn’t have to be complicated. Find helpful tips to whip up a nutritious breakfast with Renew’s recipe library, which features delicious breakfast options. UnitedHealthcare® Medicare Advantage members can learn more here. Not a member? Learn more here.