Taking care of your gut health should be a job that starts as soon as you wake up — and it can be as easy as choosing the right breakfast foods.
Making your first meal one that's packed with fiber-full carbs, lean protein and healthy fats can help you avoid acid reflux, bloating, constipation and other tummy troubles. It can also help keep you full all the way to lunchtime, experts tell TODAY.com.
But skipping breakfast, generally, is a no-no.
"Our big take-home message is not skipping breakfast," Dr. Stephanie L. Gold, a gastroenterologist at Mount Sinai Hospital and an instructor of medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells TODAY.com.
"It's really important to kind of get some food into the gut. It's good for energy and keeps you full during the day," she says.
First up: Water
Gold and Dr. Adrienna Jirik, a gastroenterologist at Cleveland Clinic, both start their days with a full glass of water.
"Drink a full eight ounces of water before you eat," Jirik tells TODAY.com. "Water should be an appetizer before every meal, but a hydration boost first thing in the morning is a must after overnight hours," she adds.
"I always try to hydrate because I don't know how busy my day is going to be," Gold says. Not only does water keep you hydrated, but it also helps keep digestion on track and prevents bloating and constipation.
What GI doctors eat for breakfast:
There is a bit of a formula to creating satisfying, gut-healthy meals.
"It's important that we look for a balanced protein, and then I look for a fiber-rich carbohydrate or starch and then some type of lean fat," Gold says.
"I know that (a meal like that will) carry me through the day," she adds. "Our days tend to be very busy, and I don't want to be hungry in an hour."
Jirik agrees: "I advise my patients to have two to three go-to mini-breakfast plans to kickstart their day that are rich in fiber, protein and a healthy carbohydrate," she says.
Gold, who describes herself as a creature of habit, tends to eat the same thing every weekday morning: a fiber-rich cereal with skim milk and seasonal fruit on the side.
When choosing a cereal, "I look for something that's lower in added sugar and then higher in fiber," she says, such as shredded wheat, multigrain clusters or oatmeal.
To keep things interesting, she recommends eating with seasons and taking cues from what's available at your local farmer's market. For instance, she might have a handful of berries, a banana or a peach with her cereal depending on the season.
Steel-cut oatmeal with fruit or nuts
"I like eating steel-cut oatmeal for breakfast because it is high in fiber, including the soluble fiber beta-glucan, which keeps the gut regular and prevents constipation," gastroenterologist Dr. Wendy Ho, health sciences clinical professor at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine, tells TODAY.com.
Sometimes, she'll add toasted almonds or walnuts for even more nutrition. Or she'll throw in some fresh berries for a little sweetness.
However, making steel-cut oats can be time-consuming (about 20 to 30 minutes). So, she often recommends people make rolled oats instead, which only take five to ten minutes.
"While rolled oats have slightly less fiber because the bran is removed, they cook in a much shorter amount of time and retain many of the health benefits," she says. You can also use rolled oats to make overnight oats by adding some milk or yogurt and leaving them in the fridge.
Protein- and fiber-packed snacks
Jirik starts her mornings with a glass of water and a hot cup of coffee with some natural cane sugar and a splash of cream on the way to work.
Then, later in the morning, she follows that up with what she calls a "more formal late-morning mini-breakfast," which could be:
- A handful of roasted mixed nuts and dried fruit.
- Yogurt with granola.
- A hard-boiled egg.
- Multigrain crackers with a few slices of cheese or some peanut butter.
These small meals are all comprised of "foods with a fair balance of fiber, protein and healthy carbs to keep me feeling comfortably satiated and maintain my energy for several hours until my next snack," Jirik says.
She also recommends patients try combinations like avocado toast, scrambled egg whites or slices of grilled chicken or turkey burger on a multigrain tortilla.
"Even a small bowl of that leftover brown rice or quinoa you made the night before with sautéed veggies and fish is also great for breakfast," she says. "The simpler the better, and if you can fit the above in a snack-size container cut into a few ready-to-go bite-size pieces, you can enjoy on the ride in, that's even more awesome."
What GI doctors avoid eating for breakfast:
Sugary breakfast pastries and prepackaged foods
"I try to avoid sugary, processed foods in the morning such as packaged cereals that are high in sugar content," Ho says.
These foods tend not to be as nutritionally dense and don’t keep you full for as long, she adds.
Jirik steers clear of "any sweets, and foods that are greasy, salty, overly processed, or anything with fake sugars," she says, which includes donuts and pastries, fast food breakfast sandwiches and energy bars.
"These are tried-and-true recipes for bloating, (indigestion), rapid changes in blood sugar accompanied by lethargy or fatigue and fecal urgency with loose stools," she says.
Greasy, processed meats
"I try to minimize the amount of processed meats that I eat, as they are associated with an increased risk of stomach and colorectal cancer," Ho says.
Those foods include any meat that has been preserved by smoking, curing or salting, such as bacon and ham.
"However, these foods bring people together at the breakfast table and are enjoyed by many, so the key is to minimize consumption and eat them infrequently," she adds.
Gold also avoids foods like bacon, which contain a lot of nitrates. “I’ll eat those things in moderation, but I don’t have them on a daily basis,” she says. Instead, she steers patients towards lean sources of protein, like boiled eggs or milk, in the morning.
And Jirik also notes that she stays away from greasy breakfast sandwiches with ingredients like bacon and fried eggs.
Gold doesn't drink coffee. But Jirik says, "The only thing I crave is a small nice hot cup of the darkest coffee I can brew... sipped slowly on the drive in (to work)."
In moderation, coffee can be a healthy morning habit. But if you're prone to acid reflux, you may want to be careful.
"Caffeine can exacerbate acid reflux by opening up the lower esophageal sphincter," Ho explains. "So people who are bothered by acid reflux may want to avoid caffeine and drink decaffeinated coffee or tea instead in the mornings."