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What Foods to Consume During the Day and Why Skipping Breakfast Is a Bad Idea

In the first part of his three-part interview with Flo, Dr. Eric Rimm, Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, shares how to eat healthy during the day, why you shouldn't skip breakfast, what snacks are healthy, and how to pick products at the supermarket.
healthy fooods on the table

How many meals a day should we eat?

Let me start by saying that I will try to focus on what I know from the science — the real science — as opposed to one small study that was done with twenty people. I think the nutrition field is challenging because it's not one-size-fits-all. 

The answers might differ for a 25-year-old woman versus a 55-year-old man, for example. 

I'll try to tell you in general what I think the science says. However, this may not work for some people or the result may depend on your genetics, where you live, or the type of food that's available where you live. I'll give you my general opinion based on the science. 

The focus should probably be more on what you eat than on how many times you eat.

How many meals to have a day depends on what you eat during those meals. It's not too surprising that if you eat three bad meals, it's not as good as eating two good meals. The focus should probably be more on what you eat than on how many times you eat. 

That said, I do think it's important to eat in the morning. Most of our research suggests that people are able to keep a more stable weight if they have food in the morning. 

There is a proverb: Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, and dinner like a pauper. I think there's something in it. Going to bed and being a little hungry isn't bad if you're thinking about how to avoid gaining weight over time. 

So, my answer would be eating 3 times a day is probably best. 

I know some people suggest skipping the middle meal. So eating plenty in the morning, then eating some in the evening and only having a very late lunch. I think that's fine. It depends on what you do during the day. Your brain needs energy, which is why I think it's important to have a meal in the morning. 

If you're going to have only two meals, it should be in the evening and in the morning. But I would recommend spreading your calories throughout the day: having three meals and maybe another snack in there somewhere, just as long as the meals are small. 

Why is breakfast so important?

There are some scientific insights that explain the benefits of eating breakfast. Let's start with children. Children who skip breakfast tend to perform less well at school. There's clearly something about brain function and the ability to pay attention that goes along with eating in the morning. 

It's easier to keep your weight stable or not gain weight quickly if you have food in the morning.

And that's not just having a cup of coffee, because a cup of coffee has almost no calories, only caffeine. Maybe it'll help jump-start your system, but I think that it's arguably important to have calories in the morning. 

Again, all the science that we've done and that others have done would suggest it's easier to keep your weight stable or not gain weight quickly if you have food in the morning. 

ideas for healthy breakfast

It's a tricky point, but I think it's important to have breakfast in the morning. It's also probably good to have something that's not just refined carbohydrates because that may contribute to weight gain. This is especially true for children who may only have a bowl of sugary cereal or white bread toast.

What are the best foods for breakfast?

It depends on who you are and what you do during the day.

It's good to have a healthy breakfast that contains some protein. In other words, not just all white bread, or not just a bagel with honey or doughnut. 

All the science suggests that if you include a protein it shouldn’t be processed meat. Thus, try to avoid sausage patty or bacon. 

Yogurt is a good form of protein (without added sugar of course). Other proteins — like an egg or two — are fine, too. 

The best way to start the day is to think about healthy foods that don't contain refined carbohydrates

Some people have fruit, or fruit with yogurt. Some people have a whole grain, whether it's steel cut oat or another whole grain, that's put on fruit, or with an egg. Maybe a small piece of a whole grain toast. Something that's a good balance of fat and protein and not just a refined carbohydrate is a good idea for a healthy breakfast. 

What about lunch and dinner?

Again, it depends on where you live, what foods you have access to, and what foods are part of your culture. It makes it tricky for me to answer what foods you should eat. 

The best science on who lives the longest shows that it's people who eat meals similar to what people in the Mediterranean eat. The Mediterranean diet has a fair bit of fat in it, but most of it is healthy fat that comes from vegetable oils like olive oil, or other liquid oils with healthy mono- polyunsaturated fats. 

There are other variations to that. Some people want to be vegetarians. If you really are strongly opposed to consuming red meat, fish, or chicken and want to be a vegetarian that's great. That means you'll eat a lot of fruits and vegetables.

We know vegetarians live the longest, at least from studies of people who have been vegetarians for 20 years. So that's great. 

However, there is a healthy way to be a vegetarian and an unhealthy way. An example of unhealthy vegetarianism is just having white pasta with a sugary beverage. It fits the definition but is not really in the spirit of a healthy vegetarian diet. 

vegetarian salad for lunch

Your daily diet should contain a fair bit of fruits, vegetables and grains — mostly whole grains, not highly processed white bread. It's also important to have fish at least a couple times a week.  

After that, if you want other animal sources of protein, you can turn to unprocessed chicken, turkey, and other poultry. 

There's a big difference between having sliced deli meat — which has been highly processed, salted, and contains preservatives — versus chicken, turkey, or another kind of poultry that's roasted or baked and then sliced and eaten. 

These are the main components of a healthy meal: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lots of healthy fats in them. It's not hydrogenated oils or a lot of dairy fat, but vegetable fats that you cook with or that you pour on your greens. And then healthy forms of animal products if you choose that route. 

Should we buy expensive exotic fruits or opt for locally grown ones? 

Fruits are very good for your health. However, if it's very expensive, I wouldn't stress about having exotic fruits.

The research that we've done in the US shows that some of the healthiest fruits are berries: strawberries, blackberries, blueberries. They are very high in polyphenols. The polyphenols in berries protect them from insects and other things. They are natural and are highly beneficial. If you're getting berries, that's great. 

I tell people also to eat apples or oranges, because generally they are a little cheaper. Apples are also actually quite high in polyphenols. Apples and berries are the two fruits that are highest in polyphenols. However, if you're just eating apples all the time, you'll get the nutrients in apples, but may miss out on some of the things in other fruits. Thus, common sense would suggest eating a few different types of fruits. 

What I recommend is to stick to fruits and vegetables that have colors. That's where you'll find the greatest benefits.

Bananas can be an occasional choice because they are plentiful. They're a simple energy source.  A good source of potassium but they don't have a lot of other nutrients in them.

Do I think mangos are good? People don't eat them enough in this country to study their effects well. But I don't think you need to spend 3 times the amount of money to buy a mango versus getting berries. 

What I recommend is to stick to fruits and vegetables that have colors. That's where you'll find the greatest benefits. 

What are the benefits of eating nuts?

In general, nuts are healthy. It's a pretty good protein source and the fats they contain are all the healthy fats. It's mostly monounsaturated fats, but some nuts have polyunsaturated fats, too. It's an alternative healthy fat source. 

Nuts are filling, so you don't need that much. A handful a day is enough and the scientific benefits are really well documented at this level of intake. 

Nuts are really great for a snack. You can have fruit in the middle of the day or, if you can afford it, you can have a handful of nuts at 10 o'clock or 3 o'clock. You'll probably eat less during the next meal because you'll feel full.

However, nuts may be expensive for some people. I don't think you need to consume them if you're getting other sources of healthy fats, whether it's vegetable oils or whatever you cook with or make salad dressing with. You can get those healthy fats from other food sources besides nuts. So, I don't think they're a requirement. 

If you have extra finances and occasionally want to have some, you can spread nuts on your meal or mix them into recipes too.   

Not every region has access to fresh fish and other seafood. Is frozen fish healthy?

frozen fish is healthy and rich in omega-3 fatty acids

Yes, definitely. 

The most important aspects of fish are omega-3 fatty acids. You'll find this more in oily fish, like salmon or mackerel, or even small sardines that come in cans. Those are very high in omega-3 fatty acids. 

These fatty acids are very stable when frozen, as is the protein found in fish. 

In fact, I think, frozen fish is the best way to eat. That way, you can have fish throughout the year without depending on when fish can be caught fresh in the sea. Nowadays, a lot of fish that's frozen gets frozen right on the boat. It's almost fresher than what you'd get in a market if it's been in the market for three or five days. I highly recommend this as an option.

Now let's imagine that we're going to the supermarket. What should we pay attention to on the labels?

Again, it really depends on where you live. 

I was just reading a new report that was put out by the World Cancer Research Fund. There is talk about different labels changes that have been going on across the globe. Governments are trying to give people better warnings about what's in the product. Several countries are using stoplights with a big black sign saying “Warning! This is high in sodium”.

I think it's important that most countries require listing the ingredients of what's in the package. 

Obviously, if you're buying an apple, you don't need to look at the ingredients. Buying fresh food, fruits, and vegetables is best. Even buying frozen fruits and vegetables is fine, as long as there's not a lot of sugar added. 

Mind the order of the ingredients listed. In the United States, when you turn over a package, it has the ingredients, and the order of the ingredients has to be in the same order their proportionate weight of what's in the package.

The best way to know that is to look at what's in the package, to turn the package around and look at the ingredient list.

That's just a good practice to learn anyway. Sometimes you don't realize what you're buying. You think you're buying frozen peas. You turn the package over and see it's frozen peas with added salt and other ingredients. You didn't realize that because you thought it was just frozen peas. 

Mind the order of the ingredients listed. In the United States, when you turn over a package, it has the ingredients, and the order of the ingredients has to be in the same order their proportionate weight of what's in the package. 

If you have a lot of sugar added, it would typically be the second or third ingredient. 

For instance, if you're buying a sugary beverage, like Coca-Cola, the first ingredient is usually water. The second ingredient is high fructose corn syrup. That means that, by weight, there's a lot of sugar in there. 

And, I think you have to be careful because there are 50 different ways to put sugar in a package. You can call it sugar, but sometimes it's referred to as high fructose corn syrup. Sometimes it's a chemical compound that is essentially the same as sugar. But if you're just looking for the word sugar, you don't realize it. 

a woman reading lables in the supermarket

Train yourself a little bit about what things are being added into the food.  Unfortunately, companies put health claims or added nutrients on the label, but it is not until you read the ingredient list that you see a lot more has been added to the food to make it taste sweet, salty, or smooth.  Don’t let food companies trick you – read the package ingredients! 

One simple bit of advice is to look at the package and find foods that only have a few ingredients. If there is a very long list of ingredients, it's usually because they're being preserved in some way. Or there are lots of other things that are being added to make it taste sweet or to make it taste saltier. That's not as healthy. 

Every country has its own way of telling you how much sodium, saturated fat, and calories are in a product. It's important to pay attention to that if you're really interested in nutrition and health. 

We know there are some things that, in the long run, are not good for middle-aged women. 

Most women in China, Russia, and the United States die of cardiovascular diseases. They die of heart disease and stroke. That's driven by consuming high levels of sodium, saturated fat, and processed fat. 

It's important to at least start to think about the food you eat and to train yourself to eat healthily. For yourself or your children, it's good to have those habits in your 20s and 30s because you hopefully keep them up the rest of your life. 

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