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Get Healthy. Carol Slager, RPh Culinary Fitness Trainer. Sauteed and roasted veggies. Photo by Tony V. Martin

Growing up, I was not allowed to leave for school without eating breakfast. My mother said I couldn’t think on an empty stomach. Surprisingly, sometimes my breakfast consisted of a frosted chocolate Pop-Tart. I probably would have been able to think more clearly had I continued my overnight fast and gone straight to lunch.

But would that have meant skipping what has come to be considered the most important meal of the day?

Yes and no.

Every meal is important when it comes to consuming a variety of foods that offer the nutritional components necessary to thrive. It is not so much about when you eat breakfast, the first meal taken after a sleeping fast, as it is about what you eat.

First, let’s review some benefits of eating breakfast. Those who choose to enjoy a nutritious breakfast on a fairly regular basis may notice: improved energy and mood; less body fat; balanced blood sugars; lower cholesterol; better food choices throughout the day; improved learning and retention; muscle preservation and increased strength; and improved bowel movements.

What qualifies as “nutritious?” The ideal meal includes protein (meats, poultry, cheese, fish, eggs, yogurt), good fats (nuts, olive oil, avocado), vegetables, and complex carbohydrates (whole grains, fruits).

Nearly 90 percent of Americans believe that eating breakfast is a good idea, yet about half skip it. Those who skip breakfast to drop body fat are up to five times more likely to be obese than those who make it a daily habit.

Based on what those is come healthiest nations eat for breakfast, it’s time we start thinking outside the box. The typical North American breakfast may include: pastries/doughnuts; sausage; eggs; bagels; coffee; cold cereal; and cow’s milk. Our obesity/overweight rate is 70 percent, and one of every two deaths is from heart disease or cancer.

In Greece, where cardiovascular disease is uncommon, people enjoy toast made with whole grain breads, jam, yogurt with honey, olives and olive oil, feta cheese, eggs and Greek coffee, which is basically boiled.

The people of Iceland typically eat whole grains focusing on rye and oatmeal; Skyr, similar to our version of Greek yogurt; berries and other fruits; meats; cheese; fish; and eggs. They have low levels of depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder and postpartum depression, which is impressive since they experience long winters with little sunlight.

If we lived in Okinawa, Japan, we could expect to live longer than anyone else on the planet, remain active in our old age and probably escape some form of chronic disease. For breakfast, we’d be munching on steamed rice, rice porridge, rice cakes, sea vegetables, seaweed, vegetable stir-fry, broiled and grilled fish, eggs, and miso and noodle soup. We’d wash all this down with a spot of green tea.

The good news is that we have a few foods in common with the folks in these countries: We do eat eggs and fruit, though, sadly, hash browns and crispy bacon didn’t make any of those lists.

Here are some ways to turn familiar foods into breakfasts that are healthier — and taste good.

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• Add spinach, mushrooms, onions, sweet peppers, asparagus and any combination of vegetables to your scrambled eggs or omelet. Simply sauté the vegetables in olive oil before adding your eggs. Any leftover rice from dinner could be sautéed with the vegetables to make a signature fried rice dish.

• Try Skyr or Greek yogurt and add berries and nuts.

• Consider a cheese and meat plate with leftover chicken or meat from the night before and some feta or goat cheese.

• Add a handful of spinach and some avocado to your protein smoothie. (You won’t taste it.)

• Try leftover dinner foods for breakfast, such as chicken vegetable stir-fry, turkey chili, sautéed meatloaf with leftover roasted asparagus, chicken salad on avocado and greens, or tossed salad with hard boiled eggs.

• If you love your bread, try whole grain or sprouted bread. These are often found in the frozen food section at your grocery store.

• Think oats, quinoa, millet or other whole grains instead of cold cereal.

• Eat real food that is not processed.

• Begin your day with a glass or two of water to get a jump on your hydration requirements.

• Because many food choices are routine, make a plan that is sustainable. If you can't allow extra time in the morning, prepare food ahead of time. Breakfast has the potential of becoming a joyous family occasion.

By eating this way, you will maintain more even blood sugar levels and experience improved energy and mental clarity. Practice doing a little bit better today. You may even become a happier morning person.

Carol Slager is a licensed pharmacist, author, blogger and health coach in Northwest Indiana. Follow her monthly in Get Healthy and at inkwellcoaching.com.

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