Regarding losing weight and building muscle, protein is often cited as the magic macronutrient. But just how vital is protein, anyway? And does the timing of when we consume it matter? Here, RDs explain why you should prioritize breakfast protein.
What’s the big deal about protein, anyway?
Protein is a macronutrient, along with carbs and fats, that the body needs to function properly. Protein is frequently cited as the macro for weight control and muscle mass synthesis, even though other macros play important roles.
After all, individuals lose 3-5 percent of their lean body mass per decade after age 30, according to Harvard Health Publishing, and consuming sufficient dietary protein can slow or prevent this loss. Muscle isn’t the only thing that protein helps out with.
Registered dietitian and nutritionist at Indigo Wellness Group, Sarah Becker, RD, emphasizes protein’s need to maintain strong bones, organs, tissues, skin, and hair. Protein is essential for growth and repair, but it also regulates appetite, stress, mood, detoxification, immunity, enzyme synthesis, fluid and pH balance, and hormone health, among many other functions.
Amino acids, the building blocks of proteins, are also used to create neurotransmitters in the brain. “This is why eating enough protein is essential for overall well-being, including mental health,” explains Anya Rosen, RD, IFNCP, a registered dietitian, functional medicine practitioner, and founder of the Birchwell Clinic.
The Dangers of Not Eating Protein in the Morning
Protein is essential, without a doubt. But why does everyone seem to be so worked up overeating breakfasts high in protein? A licensed dietician discusses the health hazards associated with missing breakfast protein.
1. Blood Sugar (and energy) levels might plummet if protein intake is neglected
Glucose, the byproduct of digesting carbs, enters the system rapidly after ingestion. Blood sugar levels spike sharply and then drop down abruptly as a result. That drop, or crash, is often accompanied by sensations of weariness, weakness, or inability to concentrate.
Since protein “buffs the blood sugar spike associated with carbohydrates in the meal,” as Rosen puts it, “including protein at breakfast can help stabilize blood sugar and, in turn, improve energy levels.”
Eating additional protein first thing in the morning is beneficial even for those diagnosed with high blood sugar. According to research published in Diabetes Care in July 2020, those with diabetes who prioritized protein in the morning had a decreased chance of developing cardiovascular disease and a slower rate of disease development.
You may get the energy you need through the morning by supplementing your diet with lean protein meals like skinless poultry, fish, eggs, beans, tofu, and protein powder instead of just “naked” carbohydrates.
2. You could get hungry if you don’t eat protein
Have you ever had a light meal like cereal or a bagel without any toppings and been hungry an hour later? That’s probably due to the lack of protein in the dish.
Calories for calories, proteins, and carbohydrates both provide four calories per gram. However, proteins are digested more slowly than carbohydrates.
A small study published in February 2006 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition partially explains that protein-rich meals keep us full for longer. The researchers found that eating a high-protein breakfast significantly slowed the rate at which the stomach emptied compared to eating a high-carb breakfast.
3. Skipping protein might lead to extra pounds.
Protein not only aids in blood sugar regulation but also affects hormones that regulate hunger and promote satiety (feeling satisfied and full after eating). According to Becker, protein “reduces the hunger hormone ghrelin” and boosts appetite-suppressing hormones such as GLP-1, peptide YY, and cholecystokinin (CCK).
Breakfasts richer in protein may enhance energy expenditure (or calorie burn) and reduce the frequency of midnight snacking, according to research done in adolescents and children and published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition.
And because protein satisfies hunger longer than carbohydrates, having a carbohydrate-only breakfast might leave us feeling hungry sooner in the day. Regularly using high-carb breakfast foods like bagels and muffins may lead to insulin resistance and weight gain over time.
In conclusion, Becker believes eating breakfast protein can result in “fewer cravings, less grazing, and [fewer] cases of the hangries,” all of which can aid in weight reduction.
What is the Recommended Amount of Protein for Breakfast?
Age, body composition, life stage, degree of physical activity, and health concerns all have a role in determining the ideal quantity of dietary protein for an individual.
If you assess your daily needs and distribute it evenly throughout your meals and snacks, that’s how much protein you should have at breakfast, says Rosen.
Split your weight in half and attempt to consume that many grams of protein daily as a starting point. For instance, a person weighing 150 pounds may require around 75 grams of protein per day, or about 25 grams of protein, at each of their three primary meals. This estimation is extremely flexible depending on your health, objectives, and levels of exercise. If your goal is to gain muscle mass, for instance, you’ll need more protein than the result of this calculation would indicate.
Consult a trained dietitian for assistance in setting an individual protein intake target.
Can Too Much Protein Harm You in the Morning?
It is possible to consume too much of any food, including broccoli. There is a similar danger in consuming too much protein at every meal of the day, including breakfast.
According to Rosen, the hazards of eating too much protein are the same as those of eating too much of any other food for someone who doesn’t have renal dysfunction: mainly weight gain or gastrointestinal discomfort. Due to the increased stress of filtering and excreting nitrogen and other waste products, people with preexisting kidney illnesses should limit their protein consumption under a licensed dietitian specializing in renal disease.
However, while it is important to include protein in our early meals, doing so should come at a different price than other macros. “Protein is only one piece of the nutrition puzzle,” Becker says. “If you eat only protein for breakfast, you won’t get the energy-boosting carbohydrates, gut-friendly fiber, and healthy fats [that support hormone balance] that these foods offer,” she says.
For a nutritious morning meal, combining lean proteins with high-quality carbohydrates and heart-healthy fats is best.
Tips for Including Protein in the Morning Meal
Here are some morning protein options recommended by dietitians:
- Prepare an egg scramble (with the yolks!) loaded with vegetables and serve it with whole-grain bread.
- Make some fried eggs and serve them with lentils, avocado, and sauerkraut on a bed of greens.
- Blend some low-sugar granola, berries, and protein-packed Greek yogurt for a healthy parfait.
- Mix cottage cheese with berries and chia seeds into a protein and fiber-rich snack.
- Blend some protein powder into your morning porridge or fruit smoothie.
- Serve smoked salmon and arugula on avocado toast.
- Prepare a tofu scramble with onions, bell peppers, and whatever seasonings you choose for a healthy meal.
- Reheat last night’s meal and eat it for breakfast.
- Bananas, eggs, protein powder, and oats make for a protein-packed pancake breakfast.
- Create a protein-packed grain bowl with your preferred cooked vegetables, quinoa, and chicken sausage.
- Substitute peanut or almond butter for conventional butter on whole-wheat bread, then top with fruit and hemp seeds.
Is It That Serious an Issue That Some People Do Not Eat Breakfast Protein?
It’s not good at all. “Protein at breakfast is a key opportunity to set the stage for optimal metabolism throughout the day,” adds Rosen. Skipping breakfast and missing out on the protein it provides is like starving your body and brain of a vital, healing nutrient.
While grabbing a piece of toast on the way out the door isn’t the worst thing you can do for your health, making it a habit to include protein in your morning meals may help you maintain a healthy weight, feel full longer, keep your blood sugar levels steady, and achieve your exercise goals.