Here’s where you might be going wrong.
“One of the most common ways people turn their breakfast into an energy-draining sugar bomb is by not including protein and fat with their carbohydrate-heavy meals,” says Stephanie Dunne, RD, a Manhattan-based dietitian.
So if you typically have flavored oats or a fruit smoothie (options that are usually low in fiber and protein), your breakfast is likely getting converted into sugar and then quickly digested. To help you start your day off right—and stave off those mid-morning stomach rumbles—we asked nutritionists to share fixes for the six most common breakfast slip-ups.
Smoothies are a favorite breakfast option for a reason: They’re easy to sip on the go and pack a plethora of vitamins and antioxidants. But many people transform their drinks into energy-zappers by adding every fruit in the fridge. Sure, fruit is wholesome, but that doesn’t mean you should eat it with abandon. When consumed in excess, sugar—even the natural kind—can spike blood sugar and leave your stomach begging for a mid-morning snack.
The flavored yogurt, fruit juice, and sweeteners you’re also adding to your morning blend aren’t helping the blood sugar situation, either. You can do so much better.
The Fix: To avoid the energy crash, make at least half of your smoothie fibrous vegetables, says Rachael Link, RD, a Manhattan-based dietitian. “They’re lower in calories and don’t load up on the sugar,” she explains. “Spinach is a popular choice because other ingredients easily mask its taste, but any vegetable will work.” She also recommends blending in no more than 1 cup of fruit and sticking to those that are naturally lower in sugar, like strawberries or blackberries.
Rebecca Lewis, in-house dietitian at HelloFresh, suggests skipping fruit juice and using low-fat milk (a great source of protein), unsweetened coconut water, or plain ol’ water instead. “Even with 100% fruit juice, what you end up consuming is a high-calorie and high-sugar drink.” (For more ways to make over your morning drink, don’t miss these 5 ways your smoothie is making you gain weight—and how to fix it.)
Replacing regular waffles and pancakes with gluten-free versions doesn’t make your breakfast any better for you. “These products almost always contain more carbs than the wheat-made originals,” explains Brenna Thompson, RD, a dietitian at Nutritional Weight & Wellness in St. Paul, Minnesota. “The highly refined potato, tapioca, and rice starches used in gluten-free products break down very quickly in the digestive tract.” The faster your body digests your breakfast, the sooner your stomach will tell your brain it’s time to eat again.
The Fix: To get your flapjack fill, try this healthy hack from Thompson: “Blend a ripe banana and mix with two eggs and two tablespoons of coconut flour. Pour the batter into a pan greased with coconut oil or butter and top with full-fat whipped cream.” Unlike starchy pancakes drizzled with sugary syrup, this recipe provides healthy fats and protein to help keep hunger at bay. If you’re set on your regular or gluten-free pancakes or waffles, limit yourself to one. (And be sure to avoid these 7 mistakes you’re making with your pancakes.) Top it with butter instead of syrup, and pair it with a sausage link for some added protein and satiating fats, Thompson suggests.
Toast with jam may be easy to grab for breakfast, but it’s not keeping you all that full if it’s the only thing on your plate. “Fat and protein slow the digestion of carbohydrates and the absorption of glucose from those digested carbohydrates, so we don’t get a massive blood sugar rush,” Dunne explains. Sadly for your appetite, this meal doesn’t serve up either nutrient.
The Fix: Opt for whole or sprouted grain bread instead of white to add some filling fiber and protein to your morning meal. And while you’re at it, swap the sugary jam for some no-sugar-added nut butter, Dunne suggests. If you want to add a bit of sweetness to your slice, a few mashed blueberries or sliced strawberries with a dash of cinnamon should provide the flavor you’re after—without leaving you hungry.
“It’s easy to get carried away with toppings by piling on the brown sugar, maple syrup, and honey,” Link says. And then there are the less obvious culprits to monitor, like dried fruits, which are sweeter than their fresh counterparts. Combined, all of these mix-ins can turn your protein- and fiber-filled breakfast bowl into a hunger-revving sugar bomb. (Also watch for 6 ways your oatmeal could be making you gain weight.)
The Fix: Top your breakfast with nuts, nut butter, or unsweetened coconut flakes to add protein and healthy fats to your meal and boost its staying power. And instead of your usual sweetener, consider cooking your oats with a mashed banana or unsweetened applesauce and a little cinnamon, suggests Lindsey Janeiro, RDN, a dietitian in Sarasota, Florida. “The natural sweetness from the fruit and a sweeter spice like cinnamon will add a lot of flavor without added sugar.” Nutmeg or a splash of vanilla extract can add to the taste, too. If you can’t stomach your oats without some sort of sweetener, limit yourself to one teaspoon or less, advises Link, and stick to honey or maple syrup—since they’re sweeter than sugar, you can get away with using less, without sacrificing flavor.
Though protein powders can be a smart way to add oomph to your morning blend, a lot of us use sweetened varieties without knowing it. “Surprisingly, several contain sugary ingredients such as corn syrup solids,” says Jennifer Bowers, PhD, RD, a dietitian in Tucson. Scan the ingredients list and avoid any powders made with sucrose, glucose, dextrose, corn syrup, honey, invert sugar, maltose, malted syrup, maltodextrins, sorghum syrup, or molasses, she advises. Everything on this laundry list is a nickname for sugar, an additive that cancels out the filling power of your protein. (While you’re shopping for a new container, steer clear of these 6 types of protein powders you should never buy.)
The Fix: Opt for a protein powder with a very low carb content, Bowers advises. Shoot for less than 2 grams of carbs per serving (typically one scoop), but no more than 4 grams. (We like Norcal Organic Whey Protein Powder, available from the Women’s Health Boutique.) “Sugar spikes occur when the body receives a large simple carb (aka sugar) load,” she explains. “This makes blood sugar rise, but only temporarily. Without the complex carbs that digest slower and keep blood sugar steady, drops occur rapidly.” Translation: You’re hungry again way too soon.
Finding it difficult to make the switch? Try using banana, strawberries, or pineapple to flavor your smoothie instead. These foods contain fiber, which will help to blunt the hunger-fueling effects of the sugar. Remember though, limit yourself to one cup of fruit max!
If you always take your brew with a heaping spoonful of sugar, you’re setting yourself up for a morning slump and raging hunger—especially if you drink multiple cups. “Even the sugar-free options can cause a blood-sugar imbalance,” warns Keith Kantor, RD, a dietitian outside Atlanta. That’s because substitutes like Splenda trigger the body to produce more insulin, just like real sugar does. And if you stop for a flavored latte at a coffee shop, you’re sipping candy bar levels of the sweet stuff: A typical medium fat-free latte contains 18 grams of sugar, Kantor cautions. (Whatever you do, avoid these 5 absolute worst things you can add to your coffee.)
The Fix: “Keep your coffee simple,” Kantor advises. “Get used to drinking coffee black or with cream only, and you can save at least 10 grams of sugar.” If you only like your cup o’ joe sweet, Kantor recommends using stevia in moderation. Unlike Splenda, this plant-derived sweetener is all natural and won’t provoke your body to pump out insulin, he explains. Janeiro also suggests mixing in spices and flavors that taste sweeter without added sugar, like fresh mint, cocoa powder, cinnamon, or pure vanilla extract.