What you eat for breakfast sets the stage for the rest of the day — and your diet sets the stage for the rest of your life. That's why choosing the right breakfast foods (and avoiding the ones that may shorten your life in the long run) is so important.
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"Your food is a huge part of what becomes your brain, your bones and your muscles," says Danine Fruge, MD, medical director at Pritikin Longevity Center. "If you don't eat correctly, you're trying to fuel a racecar with junk fuel and you can't expect it to run well."
Poor diet is responsible for more deaths globally than any other health risk, including using tobacco, per an April 2019 study in The Lancet. The leading dietary risk factors for mortality are diets high in sodium, low in whole grains, low in fruit, low in nuts and seeds, low in vegetables and low in omega-3 fats.
As you can tell, there's a lot you should add to your meals to live a longer life. (In fact, here's the one breakfast longevity experts want you to eat more often.) But cutting out a few key offenders can also be helpful.
Here are the breakfasts that longevity experts recommend you skip to live a longer life.
1. High-Sugar Yogurts
Yogurt typically holds a health halo as a breakfast food, but it can be high in added sugar — aka sugar that is added during the processing of foods, foods packaged as sweeteners like table sugar, sugars from syrups and honey or sugars from concentrated juices, per the USDA. It does not include naturally occurring sugars found in milk, fruits or vegetables.
Over time, manufacturers have created more dessert-inspired yogurt flavors, which can have more than 40 grams of sugar per serving, per a February 2014 report in Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology.
This may be bad news for your lifespan: Over the course of 15 years, participants who ate 17 to 21 percent or more of their daily calories from sugar were 38 percent likely to die from heart disease than those who had less than 10 percent of their calories from added sugar, per an April 2014 study in JAMA Internal Medicine.
Aim to make added sugar less than 10 percent of your daily calories, per the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. One good way to fit healthy yogurt into your breakfast is to opt for unsweetened Greek yogurt.
"Just 3/4 cup of plain Greek yogurt has 18 grams of protein and is low in sugar," says Carin Kreutzer, RDN, associate clinical professor and coordinated program director at USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology and USC Keck School of Medicine. "You can add nuts and seeds to that to contribute protein and fiber."
2. High-Sugar Granola
Similar to yogurt, granola can seem like a healthy choice at first glance — but can be filled with sneaky ingredients that act as flavor enhancers.
"A lot of granola might not only be high in sugar, but it might also be high in salt and fat," Dr. Fruge says.
Eating too much sodium is associated with a greater risk of developing high blood pressure, which is a major cause of stroke and heart disease, per the USDA. What's more, eating too much fat can lead to a host of issues that affect your longevity, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal issues and more.
What you pour into your cereal or granola makes a difference, too. "If you only have oat milk, you're going to be hungry later," Dr. Kreutzer says. Dairy milk or soy milk will provide more protein to keep you satiated all morning (and prevent you from overeating, which may lead to weight gain and its associated health risks).
3. Ultra-Processed Frozen Meals
In the frozen section of the supermarket, you may come across plenty of quick-and-easy meals like breakfast burritos, vegan egg sandwiches and more. But keep in mind that even if something is a "replacement" for unhealthy food (think: frozen plant-based bacon), that's not always a guarantee that it's healthy.
"We know for longevity that you want to avoid anything that is really processed because it does not have the nutrients that we need to thrive," says Dr. Fruge. "Things that have high sugar, high salt and high fat — regardless of if it is a breakfast food or not — are not good for longevity."
Plus, processed foods are major contributors of sodium in the diet as salt is often used to preserve foods and extend shelf life, per the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
"The calories in a food might seem OK, but if the salt is high, that can contribute to blood pressure increases and other problems which can impact longevity," Dr. Fruge says.
4. Breakfast Bars
Breakfast bars may be quick and easy options for when you're on the go, but they won't benefit you for the rest of the day (or for the rest of your life, necessarily). One main reason: Breakfast bars can be high in calories but not very satisfying, which can lead to poor eating habits.
"Some of the bars out there can be high in fat," says Dr. Fruge. "It psychologically doesn't seem like you ate that much when in reality you are eating too much."
If you overeat as a result later on in the day, it could eventually lead to weight gain that affects your longevity.
"We know that anything that causes weight gain and fat gain, particularly around the middle, causes metabolic syndrome which is related to blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, dementia and more," Dr. Fruge says.
5. Baked Goods
Delicious baked staples like pancakes, waffles and doughnuts are often the worst choices for your longevity.
"These might not only have a lot of processed ingredients in them — which makes your blood sugar and your insulin go up — but they may also make you tired later in the day and make you crave food that is not good for you," says Dr. Fruge.
Of course, you can make your own versions of these foods in a healthier way.
"Typically, those types of foods are processed unless you're making them homemade," Dr. Fruge says. "But there is a way to make a healthy homemade pancake or waffle. If you do so with whole-grain flour, and you're not adding sugar, then it can be healthy — it's really about the quality of the ingredients and the serving size."
It also depends on what you pair baked goods with. Processed baked goods may not be rich in nutrients, so if they're the staple of your meals, you're missing out on important vitamins and minerals that can help you live a longer life (and getting too much of the stuff that may shorten your life).
"To me, the worst breakfast is one that lacks nutrients," Kreutzer tells us. "If I'm having a coffee with non-dairy creamer that has no protein, with two to three packets of sugar, and getting a croissant, I'm missing fiber and protein and getting way too much refined sugar."
- The Lancet: "Health effects of dietary risks in 195 countries, 1990–2017: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2017"
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration: "Added Sugars on the New Nutrition Facts Label"
- Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology: "Yogurt: Nutritious Food or Sugary Treat?"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Added Sugar Intake and Cardiovascular Diseases Mortality Among US Adults"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans"
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Sodium in Your Diet"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "Processed Foods: What's OK and What to Avoid"