Health: Breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day but which one is best for you?

WHEN it comes to breakfast, we all know that something is better than nothing.

Indeed, the NHS sees the merits of eating breakfast as a simple and important public health message, with a recent study by Edinburgh University revealing that pupils who eat breakfast every day are more likely to rate their school performance as "good" or "very good".

However, with social changes having all but wiped out the gingham-draped breakfast table with its toast-rack and tea-cosy, the critical issue has increasingly become not one of simply having breakfast, but of what is being had.

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"We're not without hope," says Professor Christine Edwards of Glasgow University, "but our problem in Scotland, particularly in the west, is that disease such as obesity is linked directly to a high fat diet lacking in fruit and vegetables."

So, what are our options for the most important meal of the day, and how do they weigh up on the health scales?

With a plate of bacon, eggs, toast and butter providing more than the daily recommended amount of saturated fats, we know a fry-up is bad for your heart. But it isn't all bad news. Sarah Stelling, of the Edinburgh Centre of Nutrition and Therapy, recommends a healthy version of the traditional spread: "Eggs, poached or scrambled, with grilled tomatoes and mushrooms are a nutritional choice and make for great breakfast fodder."

As an excellent source of protein, eggs contain all the essential amino acids we require and grilling is the healthiest way to prepare vegetables. Alternatives include low-sugar baked beans on toast or kedgeree.

Tip: Stay away from the greasy spoon, no matter how glamorous the makeover, and keep the cooked breakfast for home.

The grab-and-go breakfast attracts a stream of workers succumbing to the lure of an egg McMuffin or a Starbucks on the go. Starting the day with the sugar-rush from a double chocolate chip muffin is as undesirable as the fast food option and sets you up for an energy crash an hour later. The deskfast also means you miss that all-important break, increasing stress and the need for another snack shortly.

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However, with a little advance planning you won't be tempted to grab the first thing you see. Home-made smoothies are quick and easy and you can control exactly what ingredients are going in. Cereal with low fat milk or natural yoghurt requires only a Tupperware box and nuts or dried fruit are a vitamin-rich choice of snack for those with a sweet tooth.

Eating cereals for breakfast began in the Neolithic era, when our industrious ancestors used large stones to grind grains to make a form of porridge. And you can't go wrong with the classic Scottish breakfast. A bowl for breakfast supplemented with a handful of fruit will provide a slow release of energy throughout the morning. Indeed, when the UK's oldest person, Glaswegian Annie Knight, who lived to the grand age of 111, was asked to what she attributed her long life, she put it down to a diet of "no alcohol, the occasional sweet and a daily plate of the Scottish staple porridge".

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Stelling says people are eating more cereal than they used to, but adds that considering many contain over a third of sugar, this isn't necessarily a good thing. "You need to watch out for hidden sugars, for example rice syrup. Whole grain cereals like shredded wheat and bran flakes are a high fibre, low sugar choice that will help you manage your weight."

A visual delight, the continental breakfast varies across Europe and can be nutritionally both a good and a bad thing. A typical spread will boast a selection of sweet foods, brioche, croissants and Danish pastries; fillings include jam, chocolate and cream.

Such delusions of European grandeur must be kept in check, as a single doughnut contains over 20g of fat, with an almond croissant racking up a calorie count of about 600. Sweet dishes aside, we can learn a lot from our European neighbours about the art of enjoying a good breakfast.

Mediterranean hot spots such as Greece and Turkey have a culture of starting the morning with fresh fruit and vegetables such as cucumber, tomatoes and olives. Rich in antioxidant vitamins and minerals, these lower the risk of heart disease, certain cancers and other chronic diseases.

Tip Of Polish origin, the bagel has become a popular breakfast choice worldwidei but they can be deceivingly calorific. It's best to stick with the whole grain variety which is both high in fibre and low in fat. And if there really must be cream cheese, why not consider the low-fat version which cuts back on the calories while still delivering plenty of flavour?

This article was first published in Scotland On Sunday, 12 December, 2010