The ‘Big 3’ Brain-Boosting Nutrients a Functional Medicine Doctor Says You Should Eat at Breakfast for the Most Focused Day

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We’ve heard it said countless times that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and studies show that this age-old saying is totally on-point. Whether you’re a fan of making breakfast the first item on your morning to-do list or you prefer to wait until your appetite has awoken post-morning walk, how we choose to break our fast can unquestionably have a major impact on the entire day.

What's more, research shows that starting your day with the right foods helps maintain heart health, steady energy, and optimal cognitive functioning. That's why we asked Austin Perlmutter, MD, an internal medicine specialist and brain health expert to share his best advice for building a brain-friendly breakfast that will keep us energized, focused, and feeling upbeat no matter what the day holds.

“When it comes to eating healthy, the deck is certainly stacked against us, as many popular breakfast foods can be disguised desserts” says Dr. Perlmutter. "However, it's important to keep in mind that we can still use breakfast to set ourselves up for success in so many ways—like staying energized keeping our focus—with a few key tools."

Ready to learn more? Here are Dr. Perlmutter's basic tips for building a brain-friendly breakfast with loads of protein, as well as the 'big three' nutrients to include in your morning meal for optimal cognitive functioning and focus throughout the day.

How to build the most brain-friendly breakfast, according to an internal medicine doctor

1. Choose whole grains over simple carbs

“Regardless of whether you wait until 11 a.m. to eat breakfast or go for it first thing after waking up, choosing foods with plenty of protein and healthy fats will help you stay focused so much better than opting for simple carbohydrates and sugary foods like muffins,” Dr. Perlmutter says. “These foods can spike blood sugar and leave us with an energy crash.”

Dr. Perlmutter isn’t definitely not saying to skip carbs completely—they are an essential component of our daily diets—but to instead choose sources that are packaged with other nutrients like fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. These brain-boosting complex carbohydrate sources include foods like fruit, yogurt, whole grains, beans, and veggies.

2. Focus on fiber while minimizing added sugars

While our expert encourages including complex carbs at breakfast, he also emphasizes the importance of opting for fiber-fueled options to help you start your day strong. "And on that note, excess added sugars should be consumed in moderation in the morning," Dr. Perlmutter adds. He notes that if you tend to eat out for breakfast on your way to work or on the weekends, restaurant foods are also prone to being heavier in sugar to make them taste better, including sneaky sources like ketchup, breakfast cereal, granola, and oatmeal packets.

“Added sugar is included in around 70 percent of the foods we find in the supermarket today, and this may especially be the case when it comes to our breakfast,” says Dr. Perlmutter. He notes that many of the sugar-laden foods marketed to us are designed for breakfast, like cereals and baked goods, and even the ones that seem like a healthy choice can be sneaky sources. It’s important to check the nutrition facts label for added sugar and the ingredients label to see where that sugar is coming from to make an informed decision about which foods and beverages to start your day with.

3. Break your fast with the 'big three' brain-boosting nutrients: protein, fat, and (yes, again) fiber instead

Now that we know what to avoid, Dr. Perlmutter believes it’s equally—if not more—important to know what to load up our breakfast plates with to have an optimal morning meal. He says that the 'big three' brain-boosting combo of protein, fat, and fiber is a surefire way to feel your best all day long. These nutrients are jam-packed with benefits, from healthy aging and radiant skin to improving sleep quality and, of course, optimal brain health.

Ready to nosh? Dr. Perlmutter shared a few of his favorite breakfasts to help us get inspired.

Dr. Perlmutter’s top brain-friendly breakfast recs

Dr. Perlmutter's favorite breakfast is pastured eggs with sauteed spinach and sauerkraut—and if he’s looking for something plant-based, he opts for scrambled tempeh with pumpkin seeds, olive oil, and sliced avocado.

“Eggs are one of my favorite foods for taste and for their benefits,” Dr. Perlmutter says. “They are packed with nutrients ranging from protein and choline to the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, which are both linked to brain health. Eggs are also rich in B vitamins, like B12 which are essential to healthy brain function.”

If you prefer something sweet, Dr. Perlmutter suggests swapping out sugary oatmeal packets for his beloved creamy chia seed pudding. He says that chia seeds are packed with omega-3s, a brain health rockstar, and the addition of colorful toppings like berries and walnuts will give you a great mix of protein, fat, fiber, and antioxidants to support stable energy levels all day. Plus, you can customize your bowl to your heart's content by adding a favorite milk and even a scoop or two of protein powder to up the nutritional ante.

What about coffee?

One of our most pressing questions for Dr. Perlmutter was if coffee could be considered part of a brain-healthy breakfast routine. Lucky for us, our expert says he loves to start his day with black coffee or espresso, and his favorite brand is Purity Coffee because it’s organic and especially rich in antioxidants.

“In general, coffee is a rich source of plant nutrients called polyphenols that are linked to better cognitive and mental health, as well as caffeine that helps power up my brain for the day,” Dr. Perlmutter says. “However, people who are sensitive to caffeine, experience anxious symptoms when consuming it, children, and pregnant women should all use caution before choosing to sip a daily cup.”

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