Breakfast comes at a terrible time of day to make a rational decision. We're rushed. We're groggy. And we're famished.
We know it's good for us -- 90 percent of Americans think it's the most important meal -- yet fewer than half of consumers eat it regularly, according to the International Food Information Council.
Unlike other meals, however, breakfast is unique in that it can set the tone for your entire day -- for better or for worse. The trick is knowing how to eat it.
There is no perfect morning meal because the best breakfast depends on your body and individual nutritional needs, but you can't go wrong by eating "a moderate meal of mixed foods," said Richard Mattes, a professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.. Start experimenting, using our guide below to see how common breakfast combos will affect your day.
BAD, BAD, BAD: No breakfast at all Some people say they're not hungry when they wake up, but because you've fasted all night, your metabolism -- and fat-burning ability -- slows down. Those who skip breakfast are also more likely to be overweight and eat more fat and calories the rest of the day, said Susan Biali, a physician who specializes in dietetics in Vancouver. Bypassing breakfast also makes you less productive and less likely to excel at school or work.
BAD, BAD: Coffee or tea only A daily cup of coffee or tea can give you some hydration and a jolt of caffeine. Research has also linked both drinks to a variety of health benefits. But though it might hold you over until lunch, "it's only the hot liquid that is filling your stomach, tricking you into feeling satisfied," said Janel Ovrut, a Boston-based registered dietitian. "You likely wind up overeating come lunch, when you're famished." To jump start your metabolism, add a piece of fruit, suggested Ovrut.
BAD: Coffee or tea, plus a doughnut It's quick, easy and yummy, but you'll pay a steep price for the 90-minute sugar high. Doughnuts are a famously high-calorie, high-fat, high-carbohydrate breakfast that will leave you feeling "stuffed, sluggish and even sleepy," said New York registered dietitian Constance Brown-Riggs. . A breakfast bar and orange juice might seem healthier, but "it's not much better than eating a candy bar and sugar cubes," said John La Puma, a physician, chef and author of "ChefMD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine" (Crown, $24.95). Avoid sugary foods in the morning altogether. If you're going to eat a breakfast bar, try to sit down and eat it slowly, La Puma said.
BETTER: A bowl of low-sugar, high-fiber cereal with no- or low-fat milk, banana, whole wheat toast and jam and coffee Choose cereals that have at least 3 grams of fiber and less than 10 grams of sugar. Still, although this breakfast provides a little fiber, some protein and some vitamins from the fruit and cereal, it's high in processed sugar, wheat and caffeine, said registered dietitian and weight-loss coach Ilona Fordham. "It won't provide long-term energy, and by midmorning a person will want more caffeine," Fordham said. By lunch you'll be hungry and may feel like overeating all day long.
BEST: A hard-boiled egg and a bowl of slow-cooking oatmeal topped with berries, walnuts, raisins, flax seeds or sunflower seeds -- with coffee or tea This meal is a nutritional powerhouse and easy to pull off if you make the oatmeal and the eggs the night before. Fiber and protein help slow down the digestive process, making you feel full longer and keeping your blood sugar steady. "The protein from the milk and nuts, combined with the healthy carbohydrates, will eliminate any sugar crashes for at least three hours," said Melissa Hawthorne, a Houston-based registered dietitian. To make this meal even better, add good fats by spreading peanut butter or avocado on whole grain toast or an English Muffin.
Is it OK to eat a big Sunday brunch? Cold cereal is the most popular breakfast food during the week, but on leisurely weekends, we love to let loose. We devour traditional breakfast foods such as eggs, bacon, sausage and pancakes, according to the market research company Mintel. Fortunately, the weekend binge isn't likely to have a huge negative effect because "eating healthy is all about balance," said Timothy Harlan, a professor of medicine at the Tulane University School of Medicine, who produces the nutritional Web site drgourmet.com. "Sure, you can eat perfectly 21 meals a week and be healthier, but at what price?" Sunday brunch is a special part of countless family rituals, said Harlan. That alone can have health benefits. "Having a large, friendly meal works for all of us on a social level that transcends the perfect diet," he said.