As the most important meal of the day, the quality of your breakfast can really make or break your potential productivity for the rest of the day. But after getting swept up in the morning rush, grabbing a quick fast-food breakfast is sometimes the best choice you have. Although finding a nutritious meal from the drive-thru can be challenging—after all, many fast-food breakfasts are loaded with empty calories and added sugars—it’s not impossible.
In fact, many restaurant chains have made a conscientious effort to include healthier alternatives to their usual fried or sugar-laden fare, so it’s easier than ever to find some healthy fast-food breakfasts that offer a decent balance of protein, fiber, and quality carbohydrates. But perhaps the biggest obstacle for today’s consumer is recognizing which fast-food menu items are genuinely good for you, and which ones are health food imposters. Unfortunately, some of these “healthy” breakfast orders are just masquerading as healthy when they can contain more sugar than a 12-ounce can of Coke!
To put this in perspective, one 12-ounce can of original Coca-Cola contains about 39 grams of sugar, which equals close to 10 teaspoons of this sweetening substance. This comprises nearly 80% of the recommended limit for how much added sugar you should consume in a single day. While this figure is shocking in and of itself, imagine having a light fast-food breakfast that you believe to be nutritious and think is doing your body good, only to discover that it contains even more sugar than this indulgent beverage. As prolific singer/songwriter Alanis Morisette once said, “Isn’t it ironic—don’t you think? A little too ironic.”
How much is too much sugar with breakfast?
“The amount of sugar that an average adult should limit themselves to in a healthy, wholesome breakfast can vary depending on individual factors such as overall calorie needs and health conditions,” explains Mary Sabat MS, RDN, LD. “However, it is generally recommended to keep added sugars to a minimum.”
“The American Heart Association suggests that women should aim for no more than 25 grams (6 teaspoons) of added sugars per day, while men should aim for no more than 36 grams (9 teaspoons) per day,” says Sabat. “Considering this, it would be advisable to keep the sugar content of your breakfast as low as possible or opt for foods with little-to-no added sugars.”
Echoing Sabat’s insight on the AHA’s recommendations, Lauren Manaker, MS, RDN, registered dietitian and author of The First Time Mom’s Pregnancy Cookbook and Fueling Male Fertility, tells Eat This, Not That!, “Clearly, we should not be exceeding this quantity at breakfast time, as that would mean that you should consume zero added sugar throughout the rest of the day.”
How too much sugar in your breakfast can affect your health
“The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests a similar guideline of keeping added sugar intake below 10% of total daily calorie intake, which is approximately 50 grams (12 teaspoons) for an average adult consuming 2,000 calories per day,” Sabat mentions. “However, it’s important to note that these recommendations focus on added sugars, not naturally occurring sugars found in whole foods like fruits and dairy products. It’s generally advised to prioritize whole, unprocessed foods and limit the consumption of sugary beverages, desserts, and heavily processed snacks to maintain a balanced and healthy diet.”
“A nice rule-of-thumb is to limit your added sugar intake at breakfast to around one-third of your daily allotment, which would be about three teaspoons (12 grams) for men and about two teaspoons (8 grams) for women maximum,” advises Manaker. “If you find that you consume a lot of added sugar later in the day, this limit at breakfast should be even lower.”
While we may aspire to have the time to whip up a well-balanced breakfast at home every morning, for many people, this isn’t always a practical reality. We all have to lean on the convenience and accessibility of fast-food joints every now and then. And when a fast-food breakfast is your only or best way to eat your morning meal, abstaining from added sugars can be easier said than done. However, having an awareness of the recommended daily limits for sugar consumption and knowing which seemingly “healthy” fast-food breakfast menu items are actually overloaded with sugar can only empower you to stay in a more wholesome ballpark as you scan the menu.
Ordering a breakfast that’s high in sugar can be a recipe for disaster. According to Sabat, eating too many grams of sugar in your breakfast is associated with several potential side effects, including:
Suffice it to say, eating excessive amounts of added sugar regularly can do your body more harm than good. But, given that some sugar-packed fast-food menu items are presented as if they are totally wholesome breakfast choices, determining which meals are authentically nutritious and which are really just sugary charlatans can get tricky. To help you identify some of these unhealthy fast-food breakfasts that are disguised as ‘healthy’ choices, we’ve rounded up a list of fast-food breakfast orders with sugar content exceeding that of a 12-ounce can of Coke—which, remember, contains 39 grams of sugar.
Sugar per muffin: 45 grams
You’d think that a breakfast food including fruit as nutritious as blueberries would be a bit better for you. However, the blueberry muffins from Dunkin’ come in at 44 grams of sugar per muffin. The sugar content of this seemingly “healthy” high-sugar breakfast not only eclipses that of a can of Coke, but also contains only 1 measly gram of fiber, which likely won’t do much to satisfy your early bird appetite.