Extension Connection

Extension Connection

Boost your productivity with a proper breakfast

Photo of Leia Kedem

Leia Kedem
Extension Educator, Nutrition and Wellness
lweston2@illinois.edu

As I'm writing this, I'm doing exactly what I told my co-workers not to do last Monday. I'm eating a pastry for breakfast. You see, I gave an in-service on how to eat for maximum productivity at the office. Rule number one? Start the day off right with a balanced meal. If you've experienced a mid-morning crash, chances are your breakfast is to blame. We've heard so many times that it's the most important meal of the day, but a sugary sweet Danish, while convenient, isn't exactly the epitome of healthy.

The ideal breakfast should contain a good balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat. Carbohydrates (which break down into sugars) are essential for all bodily functions, so it's not surprising that they can significantly affect productivity at work. The brain exclusively uses glucose (one of the simplest carbohydrates) to function, so you can imagine what happens when you skip breakfast. But at the same time, things can go wrong if your breakfast has too much carbohydrate. When you eat a meal that's high in carbohydrate but contains little else, the food is quickly broken down and sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream. This rapidly raises blood sugar levels, giving an initial energy boost. We burn through it quickly, though, causing levels to plummet back down. This crash can manifest itself as fatigue, irritability, headaches, and difficulty concentrating.

To prevent this from happening, there are a few things one can do. First, the type of carbohydrate you eat can make a big difference. Complex carbohydrates that are high in fiber help slow down the release of sugar into the blood. Choose whole grains like oatmeal, whole grain cold cereals, and whole wheat toast over refined grains like white toast, pastries and sugary cereals. Another way to get extra fiber is by eating a piece of whole fruit in place of drinking a glass of its juice.

In addition to carbohydrate, your breakfast should also have protein and some fat. These nutrients help keep you full for longer and slow digestion. In turn, this helps lower the rate of sugar absorption and keeps blood sugar levels on an even keel. Peanut butter is one of my favorite things to include at breakfast; a two-tablespoon serving has 8 grams of protein and 16 grams of heart-healthy fat. Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's both delicious and versatile. Spread it on toast and top with a sliced banana, stir it into a bowl of oatmeal, or enjoy with apple and celery slices. Eggs are another easy way to get protein and fat into your breakfast. I don't often have time to make scrambled eggs during the week, so I like to make a batch of hardboiled eggs on Sundays and keep them in the fridge for easy access when I'm in a rush. Dairy, of course, is another common breakfast food, and for good reason. Milk products are rich in protein and other essential nutrients like calcium and riboflavin, so feel free to include a glass of milk, a cup of yogurt, or about an ounce of cheese (the size of 4 stacked dice) as the protein component of your meal. Just remember to go for low-fat!

The amount that you eat can also affect your energy levels and ability to concentrate throughout the morning. Eating too little can make you irritable and tired, but eating too much can also put you to sleep. After a large meal, you get tired and lethargic as blood rushes to your digestive tract to help digest and absorb the food. So, instead of having a large breakfast and going into "rest and digest" mode, it's best to have a smaller yet satisfying meal and then a midmorning snack to tide you over until lunch.

I'll discuss healthy snacking in my next column, but until next time, my challenge to you is to make an effort to have a healthy breakfast. It may take some extra planning the night before, but it's worth it. By starting your day off right, the rest of the day may go just as well, or even better.

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