Breakfast can set the tone for your entire day. And, by choosing some foods over others, you could be setting your hormones up for success.
“Not all hormones can be affected by diet, but some important ones can,” Dr. Divya Yogi-Morren, an endocrinologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells TODAY.com. “The No. 1 hormone that can be affected by diet is insulin.”
The body needs insulin in order to process and store sugar from food for energy. If the body becomes resistant to insulin, it begins to require more insulin to do that job. The body processes some foods, like simple sugars, more quickly, thus raising blood sugar levels faster and putting more strain on the pancreas to produce the insulin needed to take care of that sugar.
Reducing simple sugars, and monitoring and limiting the amount of high-fiber carbohydrates in the diet can be helpful for people with diabetes and prediabetes, Dr. Thomas Donner, endocrinologist and director of the Johns Hopkins Diabetes Center, tells TODAY.com.
Doing so will “lessen the demand on the pancreas to produce insulin, (which) helps keep blood sugar levels in a more normal range,” Donner explains.
While it’s most helpful for people with insulin resistance, prediabetes and diabetes to keep these issues in mind, the experts that TODAY.com spoke to recommend that everyone generally stick to foods that have a lower glycemic index, meaning they raise blood sugar in a slower, steadier way.
“The higher the glycemic index, the quicker (a food) raises the sugar in the bloodstream,” Dr. Kavya Mekala, endocrinologist and associate professor of medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, tells TODAY.com. And it’s no surprise that diets popular among medical professionals, like the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets, also steer clear of high-glycemic index foods, she says.
In addition to insulin, food choices can indirectly affect reproductive hormones, like estrogen, progesterone and testosterone, Donner says. Insulin resistance is also thought to play a role in polycystic ovary syndrome, Mekala says.
“That first meal of the day is just a fantastic opportunity for us to eat something that is going to support our insulin sensitivity, support reproductive hormones and reduce stress levels in the body,” Yogi-Morren says.
What endocrinologists eat for breakfast:
Greek yogurt with nuts and fruit
“I’m a busy mom and we have limited time for breakfast, so it’s usually something in a bowl,” says Yogi-Morren, who was diagnosed with gestational diabetes during her second pregnancy and now lives with prediabetes.
In her family, the first meal of the day is often Greek yogurt with no sugar added, which her three kids can “dress up” however they like, she says.
Most often, that’s with fresh berries and nuts. Sometimes, they’ll add dried fruit, like raisins, but Yogi-Morren is careful not to add to many because of the higher sugar content in dried fruit. Berries remain a favorite because they contain antioxidants and fiber, and carry the perfect amount of sweetness and tartness, she says.
Greek yogurt with nuts is also a favorite breakfast of Dr. Amy Rothberg, clinical professor of internal medicine in the division of metabolism, endocrinology and diabetes, she tells TODAY.com.
Most mornings, Donner also eats unsweetened full-fat Greek yogurt. He’ll add fruit, usually blueberries or bananas, as well as some walnuts, almonds or pecans.
As someone who used to eat flavored yogurt, Donner says it’s “been a hard transition” to the unsweetened kind. But adding the fruit and the crunchy nuts helps make it more flavorful and satisfying to eat. “As you wean yourself off of sugar, you get more of an appreciation of small amounts of sugar,” he adds.
Whole wheat waffle
Mekala’s go-to breakfast is a vegan waffle made with a combination of whole wheat and almond flours. “They’re really delicious. I don’t compromise on the taste,” she says. She’s able to make them in batches so they’re ready to be toasted in the morning.
“As my coffee is brewing, I get my five sun salutations in and I toast the waffle and then I’m on the road,” she says.
Egg white omelet with vegetables
On the weekends, Donner likes to make egg white omelets that are packed with veggies. He doesn’t eat the yolks, which have more cholesterol, but the reason is he just doesn’t like the taste.
“I’ll throw in some mushrooms, some onions and spinach,” he says, adding that he’ll also have some fresh fruit on the side. “And that’s a very flavorful, healthy meal that sustains my feeling of fullness for many hours afterward.”
Steel-cut oatmeal or overnight oats
Occasionally, Yogi-Morren also makes steel-cut oats for breakfast, which she prepares the night before for the whole family. Steel-cut oats contain more fiber than rolled or instant oats, and “when something has more fiber and it’s harder to digest, it means that the sugar levels will stay steady,” she explains.
Plus, her kids prefer the chewier texture of steel-cut oats over what they call “slimy” instant oats.
Mekala generally prefers a warm breakfast. But in the summer, she’ll make overnight oats with rolled oats to eat in the morning, which she can prep in batches. She’ll top that off with whatever fruits are in season, like berries or apples, and a handful of almonds, she says.
Eggs scrambled with veggies and fish
On the weekends, Yogi-Morren and her family tend to have a bigger breakfast. That usually means scrambled eggs with greens or vegetables, and a fatty fish — like pan-fried salmon — on the side.
“If you’ve looked at the data on eggs and cholesterol, there’s a lot of inconsistent data,” she says, and “eggs are actually one of the best foods for balancing hormones.” So her family does occasionally eat whole eggs, which she supplements with an extra bit of egg whites.
Mekala also eats hard-boiled eggs occasionally, which she might top with an everything bagel seasoning and eat on its own or with a slice of multigrain toast. “That’s also a great option for something which is protein-heavy, rather than carb-heavy,” she says.
Similarly, Rothberg often eats poached eggs for breakfast.
What endocrinologists avoid eating for breakfast:
Red and processed meats
The experts recommend avoiding red meat and processed breakfast meats, like bacon and sausage.
“I enjoy foods that are salty, so in the past, I used to enjoy bacon,” Donner confesses. “But I have not had bacon for a long time because it’s just not healthy for you.” Even turkey bacon, which has less fat than bacon, still has a fair amount of fat, he says, “so I just avoid them.”
These meats contain high amounts of saturated and hydrogenated fats, which are considered to be less healthy types of fat, Yogi-Morren says. “So consuming too much of these kinds of meats can disrupt your hormonal balance,” she adds.
A diet that’s too heavy in animal protein is “somewhat concerning for cardiovascular health and the potential carcinogenic effects,” Mekala says. Instead, she sticks to plant-based sources of protein for the most part.
High-calorie, high-sugar baked goods
Breakfast pastries and other sugary, white flour foods, tend to have a high- glycemic index, meaning they’ll cause a sharper spike in blood sugar, Mekala explains.
Even foods that seem healthful can have a surprisingly high glycemic index, like instant oatmeal and flavored Greek yogurt, she says. Sweetened fruit juice can also be surprisingly high in sugar, Rothberg adds.
Ultra-processed packaged foods
Ultra-processed foods are those pre-packaged treats you’ll see on shelves, Yogi-Morren explains. “The problem with ultra-processed foods is they contain refined carbohydrates, added sugars and a lot of inflammatory fats,” she says.
Eating foods like these can “affect your hormone function by increasing inflammation, causing sugar spikes that will increase insulin and causing stress to the adrenal glands,” she says. “So you might have a high cortisol, and it will just put you at increased risk of weight gain and hormonal imbalance.”