Q: I routinely start the day with some type of breakfast, but by 10 or 11 a.m., I feel tired and irritable and crave sugar! Can you offer some nutrition suggestions to help?
—Nancy D., Oklahoma City
A: It’s surprising, but most foods that we typically eat for breakfast either contain hidden sugar or act very much like sugar in the body. This means that they disrupt blood sugar balance, which in turn leads to cravings for sugar a few hours later. The only breakfast food exception is eggs. But many people pair their eggs with blood-sugar-spiking foods such as toast, or with sugar-packed foods such as ham or bacon.
To stop this blood sugar roller coaster, it’s important to identify and avoid both foods that contain hidden sugar and foods that spike blood sugar levels. Instead, try to eat blood-sugar-balancing breakfasts that keep your energy levels steady until lunchtime. Oftentimes, that means thinking outside the box.
For a an easy breakfast that won’t spike your blood sugar, skip the toast and eat your eggs with greens instead.
Breakfast Foods with Hidden Sugar
- Yogurt: Plain, unsweetened yogurt contains good-for-your-gut probiotics and also naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose (milk sugar). But fruit yogurts, the type of yogurts most people eat, can contain up to 30 grams (six teaspoons) of sugar per serving. That’s like eating dessert for breakfast—a sure way to cause your body to experience sugar cravings a few hours later.
- Cereals: Granola, granola bars, cereal, and food bars are other quick-and-convenient products that many people eat for breakfast. Although these products contain nutritious ingredients such as pumpkin, nuts, or flax seeds, and sound super healthy, they’re a big category of sneaky sugar foods. Granola-based cereals, for example, can have up to 15 grams of sugar. That’s like eating three teaspoons of sugar. Granola bars are worse, with up to 25 grams in a small bar, equivalent to the amount in a chocolate bar. The sugar in bars and cereals may not always come from “sugar,” but from ingredients such as evaporated cane juice, glucose syrup, fructose, honey, maple syrup, brown rice syrup, fruit juice concentrate, and dates. Check labels for these sneaky sugar sources.
- Meats: Breakfast meats, such as bacon and ham, are sources of protein, which initially seem like good choices. But they, too, contain hidden sugar—in much smaller amounts than other breakfast foods, but amounts that can still prompt sugar cravings in sugar-sensitive people.
Breakfast Foods That Act Like Sugar
Other common breakfast foods—toast, English muffins, pancakes, waffles, and muffins—are high-carbohydrate, high-glycemic, blood-sugar-spiking foods. Even if they contain no added sugar, foods made with wheat flour or gluten-free flours such as cornmeal or rice flour contain carbohydrates that break down to sugar quickly, resulting in a rapid rise in blood glucose levels, followed by a drop—a recipe that can easily lead to post-breakfast hunger and mid-morning cravings. And if they contain added sugar, they spell even more trouble.
Potatoes are another carb-laden, high-glycemic breakfast. Hash browns and home fries—the two most popular potato dishes eaten for breakfast—are on the list of 100 vegetables with the highest glycemic index. Although these side dishes are often eaten with protein-rich eggs, which help moderate the blood sugar response, potatoes are likely the worst vegetables to eat for those prone to sugar cravings.
Breakfast Solutions for Long-Lasting Energy
Keep in mind that breakfast is the break to the fast your body has been on since dinner the night before. To change your breakfast habits in a favorable way and get your day off to a healthy start, shift away from the idea of eating traditional breakfast foods and toward the idea of eating a blood-sugar balancing meal in the morning. Try these tips:
Make sure your breakfast is sugar-free
Removing hidden sugar means looking at nutrition labels and avoiding foods that contain added sugars, dropping most traditional breakfast foods, and looking for no-added-sugar, lower-glycemic alternatives. Make pancakes, waffles, and muffins out of coconut or nut flour, and include no added sweeteners. For a quick breakfast “bread,” try Paleo-based Mikey’s Original English Muffins made from almond and coconut flours. If you can tolerate milk go for full-fat, unsweetened, organic Greek yogurt. In the breakfast meat category, skip the bacon and ham and look for savory rather than sweet dinner sausages, such as Applegate Organics Spinach & Feta Sausage.
Include protein, healthy fat, and slow-burning carbs
nstead of pairing poached or fried eggs with potatoes, place them on top of sautéed greens. Or make omelets or frittatas with eggs, cheese, sautéed onions, spinach, peppers, tomatoes, and/or mushrooms. For something different, try making homemade, sugar-free sausage patties with ground pork or ground turkey, sage, and fennel, and serve them with sautéed cinnamon apples in organic butter or coconut oil.
Try dinner leftovers
Breakfast should be any food that gets you off to a good start, so reheated dinner leftovers can make a quick, healthy morning meal. Whether dinner a night or two before was organic steak or hamburgers with sautéed mushrooms, chicken stir fry, or lamb chops and julienne green beans, each of these provide protein, fat, and slower-burning carbohydrates—and they’re quick and easy to reheat. During warmer months, or when you’re short on time, grab some cold, cooked slices of pot roast or chicken, nuts, celery sticks, and fresh berries.
Sugar-Free Breakfast Beverages
Breakfast for most people doesn’t just consist of food; it includes beverages too. If you’re drinking fruit juice or sugared coffee or tea with your morning meal, you’re consuming concentrated liquid sugar that can disrupt even the best-balanced food choices.
To get the sugar out of breakfast beverages, stop the fruit juice habit and try eating small amounts of whole fruit instead. If you’re accustomed to sugar or sweetened creamers in coffee or tea, take the time to gradually transition to coffee or tea with unsweetened coconut milk, organic half and half, or vanilla-flavored, unsweetened almond milk, cashew milk, or coconut milk. Or use a no-sugar-added coffee creamer such as Nutpods Unsweetened Dairy-Free Creamer or Califia Farms Unsweetened Better Half or Unsweetened Almondmilk Creamer.