Best, Worst Breakfasts for Your Health

Fast-food breakfast sandwiches could be “a time bomb in a bun”—and eating even one fat-laden morning meal has immediate adverse effects on your arteries, according to a new study presented at the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress meeting in Toronto.

A high-fat diet is linked to increased risk for atherosclerosis (narrowing of arteries due to plaque deposits), but the study suggests that damage that could lead to a heart attack or stroke may start sooner than was previously thought.

Just one day of eating a fat-laden breakfast sandwich–such as egg, cheese and ham sandwich on a bun – and "your blood vessels become unhappy," said Heart and Stroke Foundation researcher Dr. Todd Anderson, director of the Libin Cardiovascular Institute of Alberta and head of cardiac science at the University of Calgary in a statement.

The study measured blood flow through the forearm in 20 healthy people (average age 23). The researchers mentioned that the sandwich used in the study contained ham, egg, and cheese but did not name the restaurant from which it came. The goal was to reveal the risks of eating a general type of widely available breakfast sandwich, not to point the finger at specific restaurant. The test was done twice: once on a day when they’d eaten two fast-food breakfast sandwiches of a type that available anywhere in the US or Canada, and again on another day when they’d fasted. The sandwiches contained a whopping 50 grams of fat and 900 calories.

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Impaired Blood Flow Two Hours After Meal

Compared to volunteers who skipped breakfast, those who consumed the fatty sandwiches showed impaired blood flow in their forearms two hours after the greasy morning meal. That’s because their vessels were less able to dilate (widen) and deliver oxygenated blood to the heart.

While the effects from a single meal were temporary, over time such arterial changes could set the stage for a heart attack or stroke, the researchers report. They used a test called velocity time integral that measures how much blood flow can increase after a brief interruption (compressing the arm with a blood pressure cuff). The higher the velocity, the “happier” the blood vessels are.

While one cheesy sandwich isn’t going to do lasting damage, the researchers say that their results highlight the importance of limiting fat, cholesterol, calories, and salt to prevent heart attacks and strokes. A junk-food diet has also been linked to increased risk for dementia, a memory-robbing disorder that has been called “type 3 diabetes,” as I reported recently.

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What’s the Worst Breakfast of All?

Whether you’re looking to slim down, build muscle, train for a marathon, or just protect your health, breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. And a fast-food morning meal is not the worse choice. Instead, the unhealthiest option is not eating a morning meal at all.

Not only do people who skip their morning meal—or begin the day with only a cup of coffee—have less energy, worse moods, and poorer memory those who eat breakfast, studies show, but they also face some serious health risks. First of all, they’re up to 450 percent more likely to become obese, which in turn boosts risk for a wide range of ailments, including cardiovascular disease—the leading killer of Americans—gout, joint problems, and even some forms of cancer.

A 2012 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also reports that people who regularly skip breakfast have a 21 percent higher risk for type 2 diabetes. The researchers tracked about 29,000 men for 16 years and found that the increased risk remained even when body mass index was into account. Scientists suspect that a morning meal helps keep blood sugar levels stable during the day.

What’s the Healthiest Breakfast?

The right breakfast not only reduces risk for overeating later in the day, but also revs up metabolism, fuels your body and brain, and helps you maintain a healthy weight. For example, 80 percent of participants in the ongoing National Weight Control Registry study (which tracks more than 4,000 people who have dropped 30 or more pounds and kept them off for a year or longer) eat breakfast regularly.

Nutritionists advise including both lean protein and fiber in your morning meal, such as whole-grain unsweetened or low-sugar cereal mixed with non-fat yogurt, low-fat milk, or soy milk and topped with fresh fruit. Researchers at University of Texas at El Paso report that eating a filling breakfast helps people consume an average of 100 fewer calories per day, enough to add up to ten-pound weight loss over a year.

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Another study linked having whole-grain cereal for breakfast with reduced levels of cortisol, a stress hormone linked to both weight gain and a tendency to accumulate belly fat. A large waistline is the leading warning sign of metabolic syndrome, which quintuple risks for type 2 diabetes and triple it for heart attack.

As I reported recently, 95 percent of Americans don’t eat the recommended three ounces of whole grains a day, which you can get from a slice of whole-wheat bread, a 6-inch whole-grain corn tortilla, or a serving of cereal. The health benefits of whole grain include:

  • Longer life. A high-fiber diet can cut risk of death from cardiovascular causes by nearly 60 percent, according to a recent nine-year study of nearly 400,000 people ages 50 and older.
  • A healthier heart. Soluble fiber in oatmeal and oat bran reduces LDL “bad,” cholesterol and total cholesterol.
  • Weight loss. Whole grains digest more slowly than refined grains, which keeps blood sugar levels stable rather than stimulating insulin. 

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