Cancer doctors reveal their favorite healthy breakfasts — and 2 foods they avoid

Deciding what to eat for breakfast might be one of the first choices you make in a day. And that choice can have consequences for the rest of your day and your overall health, including your risk for cancer.

Many of the same foods that help with heart health can also help reduce your risk for cancer, Dr. Suneel Kamath, a medical oncologist at Cleveland Clinic, tells TODAY.com.

For Kamath, like many of the experts TODAY.com spoke to, healthy eating means following the principles of the Mediterranean diet, including focusing on lean protein sources, leafy green vegetables, fresh fruit, nuts and olive oil. That also means limiting the amount of highly processed foods, refined carbohydrates and red meat they eat.

A healthy breakfast “truly can start the day off right,” Dr. Elizabeth Comen, a medical oncologist treating breast cancer at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, tells TODAY.com. In addition to helping prevent cancer, smart food choices can contribute to better cancer outcomes after diagnosis, the American Cancer Society notes.

But trying to change your eating habits all at once can be daunting. “Particularly in the setting of a cancer diagnosis and anxiety about one’s health, it can be overwhelming to try to make lifestyle changes. So we try to start small,” Comen says.

It could be as simple as swapping out orange juice for a glass of water in the morning or going on 10-minute walks during the day. Over time, small changes like this evolve into big wins, she adds.

“And if, for whatever reason, it wasn’t the breakfast of champions, it doesn’t mean that lunch and dinner and everything thereafter is a wash,” Comen says. “You can always regain a healthy path forward. And food doesn’t have to be punishing.”

What oncologists eat for breakfast:

Oatmeal with fruit, nuts and seeds

For Dr. Jennifer McQuade, most mornings start with oatmeal. “I tend to prefer the steel cut, which is a bit higher in fiber,” McQuade, assistant professor and physician-scientist in melanoma medical oncology at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, tells TODAY.com.

Steel-cut oats notoriously take longer to make than other types of oatmeal, such as rolled oats, so McQuade makes her oatmeal in big batches. “And then I like to add flax seeds, hemp hearts, pumpkin seeds or whatever other nuts and seeds that I have lying around,” she says. She’ll also throw in a small amount of dried fruit, too.

“I’m trying to get in lots of good fiber, as well as healthy fats with some seeds, and then the good phytonutrients from the dried fruit,” she explains.

Oatmeal made with rolled oats is also one of Kamath’s favorite breakfasts. He often adds strawberries and almonds, which provide some extra flavor, as well as healthy, filling fat. “It’s not as high in protein (as some other options), but it does seem to keep me full … until lunch,” Kamath says.

Whole grain toast with peanut butter and fruit

“I eat the same breakfast almost every day, which is two thin slices of whole-grain toast with peanut butter,” Elizabeth Platz, a cancer epidemiologist and professor at the Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins, tells TODAY.com.

She also adds a thin layer of butter between the toast and the peanut butter. “My mother always did that, and it adds a little something,” Platz says. On the side, she’ll have a variety of whatever seasonal fruit her husband picked up at the farmer’s market, most recently peaches and nectarines.

Platz, who studies risk factors for prostate and colon cancers, takes care to avoid major spikes in blood sugar in the morning because hyperglycemia, or high blood sugar, is associated with prediabetes and cancer risk down the line.

“While the peanut butter I’m eating has a lot of fat, it’s a slower increase and slower drop in (blood sugar),” she explains. If she’s not eating peanut butter on toast in the morning, she’ll have it in oatmeal with some fresh berries.

High-protein bars

With a 3-and-a-half-year-old at home and mornings full of patient appointments without snack breaks, Kamath often goes for efficiency with his breakfast choices. He tends to eat protein bars, which “really just give you a lot of calories quickly,” Kamath says.

But he has specific requirements for the bars that he chooses. “I’m usually looking for things that have at least 12 grams of protein, and ideally something more like 20 grams,” he says. Any more than that and the bar tends to get a “chalky” taste, he says.

Kamath also tries to eat protein bars with 4 to 6 grams of fiber and fewer than 15 grams of sugar. “A number of these (protein bars) also add a lot of your B vitamins, vitamin C and things like that,” he adds.

Yogurt with seeds and berries

“We’ve learned an awful lot in the past few years about the gut microbiome and how it might contribute to both cancer risk and cancer outcomes, as well,” McQuade says, which is why she makes an effort to include probiotic foods — like yogurt — in her diet.

She eats plain, unsweetened yogurt and tops it with her mix of seeds and dried fruits or fresh berries, particularly blackberries and raspberries.

But she’s careful to only eat naturally fermented yogurt rather than yogurt with good bacteria added in later. When those bacteria are naturally occurring, there’s more diversity of bacteria present, she explains.

Comen also likes to eat plain, nonfat Greek yogurt with blueberries as a breakfast or morning snack “because it provides great protein, it’s low in sugar and the berries also have antioxidant properties,” she explains. If she notices berries are about to go bad, she’ll throw them in the freezer to make into a smoothie with Greek yogurt and some protein powder.

Frittata with eggs and seasonal greens

When it comes to cancer prevention, eating plenty of vegetables and leafy greens is a high priority. But it can be challenging to get those in at breakfast time.

That’s why McQuade often includes sauteed greens in a make-ahead egg frittata. She’ll use fiber-rich greens like spinach, kale, chard or dandelion greens — whatever looks good at the farmer’s market that week. Other common frittata ingredients like onions and garlic “are actually fantastic in terms of prebiotic foods,” she explains, so she boosts her gut microbiome health, as well.

Eggs, especially the yolks, can be a controversial food. For McQuade, “eggs are a great source of clean protein and some good fats,” she says. But she still takes care to eat them in moderation.

Egg white wrap with veggies

Some experts still avoid whole eggs, though. For instance, one of Comen’s favorite protein-packed breakfasts is egg whites and veggies in a whole-wheat wrap. In particular, she likes to add spinach, avocado, mushrooms and tomato. And she uses a whole-wheat wrap with added fiber.

With that, “I really have a good protein load that starts off the day,” Comen says. “That helps with hunger and helps supply my body with the building blocks that it needs to regenerate and recover from my workouts.”

When it comes to whole eggs, though, “I tend to avoid the yolk because of cholesterol and added unnecessary fat,” Comen says. The egg whites still contain protein, and the avocado provides healthy unsaturated fats.

“The traditional egg with the yolk is very high in saturated fats,” Kamath agrees. When he has the time, Kamath likes to have an egg-white omelet made with greens, like spinach.

Coffee

While Kamath is more of a tea drinker, “from a cancer perspective, it does seem like coffee does have some protective benefits,” he says. Even people who drink decaffeinated coffee can get those benefits, he adds.

“The data, for the most part, with cancer is usually a decreased risk with moderate consumption of coffee,” McQuade says. “But honestly, that’s not why I drink it. I wouldn’t be able to function otherwise.” Platz is also a regular coffee drinker, which she says helps get her brain going in the morning.

And while Comen generally prefers to get her caffeine from green tea due to its antioxidant properties, “I will sometimes have coffee with almond milk,” she says.

What oncologists avoid eating for breakfast:

Processed meats

“The big thing I see with the traditional American breakfast is that it’s often very high in red meat and processed meat, like bacon or sausage,” says Kamath, who treats colorectal cancers. “I would stay away from those things and focus more on lean protein sources.”

Eating less meat overall and especially less processed and red meat has been linked to a reduction in colorectal cancers.

That said, “if those are things that someone really enjoys, set aside a day to do that, maybe on a weekend,” Comen suggests. “The idea that you can never have something that you really enjoy is daunting,” she continues, but consider having it in moderation.

Pre-packaged, sugary or highly processed foods

“What I really counsel my patients on is whole foods,” McQuade says. “You should be able to recognize everything that is on your plate and know the ingredients that would be contained within it.”

Pre-packaged breakfast foods, like many cereals and instant oatmeal, tend to have added sugars and refined carbohydrates, which the experts generally avoid. These foods “also have lots of emulsifiers and stabilizers,” which can have negative effects on the gut microbiome, McQuade explains.

Platz also stays away from classic refined carbohydrate-heavy breakfast foods, like pancakes and waffles topped with syrup, to avoid a blood sugar spike.

Breakfast pastries also fall into this category, Comen says. “They can seem delicious in the moment, but you’re hungry moments later,” she says. “They don’t have any nutritional value, and they don’t ultimately leave you feeling good.”

Take time to be mindful and intentional about food choices

While you’re paying more attention to what you’re eating, Kamath and Platz also encourage people to be mindful of their portion sizes, noting that overweight and obesity are risk factors for many types of cancer.

But rather than focusing on limiting calories or losing weight, Comen encourages her patients to be mindful of why they’re eating at that particular moment and how foods make them feel. “It’s not just about a number on a scale, but about empowering your body with the fuel it needs to be strong and get through the day.”

Pairing that approach with regular physical activity and slowing down enough to make mindful choices about food is a recipe for long-term healthy changes, Comen says.

This article was originally published on TODAY.com