Two decades ago, the "power breakfast" emerged as the ultimate midtown Manhattan symbol of Type A overdrive. A meeting more than a meal, it took place early, and often in a see-and-be-seen spot. These days, however, it's become increasingly clear that the method for the most effective morning meal—the true power breakfast, one geared for optimum success—is a highly personal choice.
To be sure, the one thing that most experts seem to agree on is the importance of eating breakfast, often called the most important meal of the day. Marion Nestle, who has a Ph.D. in molecular biology and a master's in public health nutrition from the University of California-Berkeley and is the Paulette Goddard professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, would no doubt be expected to toe a rigid breakfast line—after all, she wrote the bestselling book What to Eat. But (call the cops!) Nestle doesn't eat her first meal of the day until three or four hours after she wakes up. And sometimes, by 11 a.m., she's ready for lunch food—a salad or sandwich.
"I do not think breakfast is the most important meal of the day," she says. "All meals are important, but I don't like to eat when I'm not hungry, and I don't think adults need to." (Children are another matter, she says.)
And Nestle is hardly alone. For many successful individuals, breakfast is no big deal. Mark Porterfield is the spokesman for Pimco, the biggest bond fund manager on the globe, situated among the palm trees of Southern California. Working at a financial firm on Pacific Time means very early mornings. Porterfield sticks to coffee between 4:15 and 7 a.m., before his very regular breakfast of a single Granny Smith apple and an iced green tea. Then lunch—early, at 11.
Photographer Scott Schuman, perhaps best known as the Sartorialist, has not traditionally spent much time on breakfast, as he has built his name as a street-fashion photographer—turning a personal aesthetic into a recognizable brand. Now, at the mature age of 41, Schuman says he's making a concerted effort to consume a morning meal. Coffee or espresso still plays a crucial role, and he may eat oatmeal with nuts when he's in New York. Schuman's biggest challenge, however, is travel. His work takes him on the road nearly half the year, often to Milan, Italy, and Paris but sometimes to such places as Australia and Brazil. "It does get much more tricky," he says of breakfast abroad. Even the granola in Europe tastes different.
In considering the breakfast fare of an array of individuals from various fields and industries, one thing is clear: There is remarkably little consensus about the ideal breakfast for success. Flickr cofounder Caterina Fake, is one of those on the opposite side of the spectrum from Nestle. "I generally eat a big breakfast in the morning, and I try to have a lot of protein—eggs mostly, and cheese and toast," Fake says. "A real lumberjack breakfast." In a deliberate effort to stay sharp during the day, Fake stays away from carb-laden pastries and cereals in her first meal. "Carbs make me sleepy and dull," she says.
Eggs used to power former White House Press Secretary Dana Perino through her days in the second Bush administration, when she'd rise at 4:15, work out, and leave for the office by 6:20. "Breakfast was an absolute must, and at 7 a.m. I usually wolfed down a couple of scrambled or over-hard eggs and some wheat toast," she says. Even so, the hunger pangs for lunch would start around 10:30.
New Yorker Erica Jong, author of Fear of Flying and this year's Love Comes First, also is "very fond of eggs." Jong will rise as early as Perino when she is in the midst of writing a book. In the wee hours, she'll drink espresso for a while, before eating breakfast. Her food choices tend to be well balanced. "Since our bodies are made of water, protein, and fat, we ought to eat these things for breakfast; otherwise our minds won't work," Jong says. "I am a great believer in feeding the brain."
Nestle does believe that a lot of people are very hungry in the morning (she attributes her own lack of appetite to very efficient glycogen storage). And exercise can certainly rev up hunger. Every morning Rep. Bob Latta, an Ohio Republican, runs 4 miles before being one of the first into the cafeteria in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill. He scoops up oatmeal with brown sugar and a carton of milk and heads back to his office to eat while he reads the morning news.
Cereal seems to play a highly habitual part in some lives. Guy Kawasaki, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and entrepreneur, eats Cheerios with a banana and 2 percent milk in the mornings. "If not this, then oatmeal with a banana," he says. "At 8 a.m., I'm not exactly breaking new ground in cuisine!"
Tyler Cowen, an economist and foodie who runs a blog focused on ethnic dining in the D.C. area, also eats breakfast cereal, but his requirements are a bit more precise. Every morning, Cowen eats spelt flakes from Whole Foods with whole milk. He also has Ocean Spray White Grapefruit Juice. This breakfast "is quick, nutritious, energizing, and, at least supposedly, the whole grain of spelt is good for you," Cowen says. But its appeal is more than nutrition and speed. "It has just the right textures plus a cold temperature for the juice and milk," he says. And Cowen is not unspecific about his utensils. He selects a spoon that is just the "right size" to carry the correctly sized bite.
Indeed, the ideal breakfast is no one thing, and the topic itself is often emotional. When touring for What to Eat, "I was astounded by the number of people who came up to me with tears in their eyes," Nestle says. All this because she had made a simple defense of a single action: not eating breakfast.