Breakfast can set the nutritional tone for the rest of the day, so what do doctors who take care of people’s hearts eat in the morning?
TODAY.com asked two cardiologists about their breakfast habits and the top mistakes they see patients make.
“Many people are in an incredible time crunch in the morning and usually reach for comfort foods like toaster pastries, processed breakfast cereals and bars that have as much sugar as some of the candy bars out there,” Dr. Andrew Freeman, director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness at National Jewish Health in Denver, tells TODAY.com.
So a breakfast that’s heart-healthy, easy to make and contains enough variety to prevent boredom is key, says Dr. Susan Cheng, a professor of cardiology and the director of public health research in the Smidt Heart Institute at Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
She knows some people aren’t hungry in the morning and skip breakfast — and that’s OK if it works for you, she notes.
“(But) for the most part, people do benefit from having something in the morning,” Cheng says.
“They find that they get off to a good start and feel better, healthier, more energetic over the course of the day.”
What cardiologists eat for breakfast:
Both doctors cited oats as their regular favorite breakfast. Oatmeal contains lots of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and studies associate it with lowering cholesterol and helping with weight control, according to the American Heart Association.
“My go-to is really oatmeal,” Freeman says. “In general, I recommend oatmeal as the best option.”
He advises a small cup of oatmeal made with water, not milk or butter, and loaded high with berries, plus additional heart-healthy ingredients such as ground flax seed or a few walnuts. Don’t use instant oatmeal, which is the most processed — go with rolled oats instead, he suggests.
Cheng likes overnight oats with chia seeds soaked in non-dairy milk (to reduce fat intake, especially saturated fat), along with dried or frozen fruit, plus nuts or seeds. This can be prepared a few days in advance and sit in topped Mason jars in the fridge, she says.
Steel cut oats, the least processed type of oatmeal, can be especially tasty, but they take longer to cook, so Cheng buys them precooked and frozen at the grocery store. You can also make your own overnight.
Healthy smoothie or shake
Freeman likes a protein-based shake made with pea protein, unsweetened soy milk and fruit, such as berries or a banana.
Cheng’s favorite is a smoothie made from blended whole vegetables and fruits to get the most fiber. Her recent go-to is a virgin Bloody Mary tomato-celery smoothie that’s rich tomatoes, which contain heart-healthy lycopene and other antioxidants.
Another favorite contains an orange blended with carrots, ginger, chia seeds and an apple, plus ice and water.
Freeman suggests a 100% whole grain piece of bread topped with a thin layer of avocado and vegetables such as onions or pickles. Research shows consuming avocados can help lower cholesterol, but it’s best to eat avocado in moderation since the calories can add up quickly.
“In just one little piece of toast, you have enough calories and sustenance to make it through until lunch and you feel good,” he says.
What cardiologists avoid for breakfast:
“The No. 1 thing that I would avoid is bacon,” Freeman says. “It is loaded with salt and a variety of other additives. … In addition to being a processed red meat and the cancer risk, there’s also obviously heart disease risk with it. So as tasty as it is, it should be avoided pretty much at all costs.”
Cheng tells patients bacon is OK as long as they only eat it every once in a while. “It almost pains me to say that as a cardiologist,” the doctor notes, but she considers bacon one of those foods that bring people together around the table and therefore provide psychosocial and mental health benefits.
The debate rages on whether the cholesterol in eggs, specifically in egg yolks, can raise the risk of heart disease or not. Some studies have found eggs may actually help protect the heart.
But cardiologists are still careful about eating them.
“I really don’t recommend eggs at all,” Freeman says. Besides being concerned about how much cholesterol they contain, he also points to studies that have found egg consumption may increase the risk of diabetes.
For people who absolutely can’t give up eggs, Freeman recommends trying a mung bean patty found in the freezer section of most grocery stores. It’s yellow, has the same texture as an egg and is “surprisingly good and decently high in protein,” he says.
Eggs are very nutritious, Cheng notes, but she categorizes them as one of those foods to eat only every once in a while. For a household of four people, she recommends eating no more than about a dozen eggs a week total. The rules are much more flexible when it comes to just egg whites since they don’t contain cholesterol, she adds.
Bakery muffins, danishes, donuts or croissants
Both experts avoid these options because they’re high in fat, sugar and refined carbs. A “gigantic” muffin from a warehouse club might contain 600 calories, Freeman notes.
He recommends people find a healthy muffin recipe and bake their own with 100% whole grains and without refined sugars.
Pancakes or waffles
These are traditional breakfast foods for Sunday brunch — meant to get people around the table to socialize, so Cheng puts them in the category of “OK to enjoy once in a while.”
You can opt for whole grain pancakes and waffles, but they probably still have less fiber and nutritional value than a piece of fruit, she notes.
“It’s better to have just a small little serving or a taste, and then (eat) a big plate of fruit or oatmeal,” Freeman adds.