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Breakfast foods are often either carbohydrate-rich, featuring foods like cereals, toast and bagels or high in fat, like the classic bacon and eggs. While these foods can fit into a balanced diet, there’s one key nutrient you should focus on: protein. Adding protein to your morning meal can deliver some seriously big benefits, from moderating hunger to balancing your hormones.
If you aren’t getting very much protein from your morning meal, here are just a few reasons why you might want to start adding this muscle-building, hunger-satisfying nutrient.
1. Protein is essential for many bodily processes
Protein is one of three macronutrients, the others being carbohydrates and fats. Each is important for health, but protein is responsible for building and repairing your tissues, such as skin, hair, organs, blood hemoglobin and muscles. When it comes to building and maintaining muscle mass, protein is vital. And that muscle mass is crucial for a well-functioning metabolism, healthy aging and overall daily body functions.
Depending on your current eating habits and goals, you might be getting enough protein. For many people, including those who are active, more protein than the typical recommended minimum will provide more significant benefits.
For the average person, the current USDA recommendations suggest aiming to get 10% to 35% of your daily calories from protein, with 1.2 to 1.7 grams per kilogram of bodyweight as the goal for most active people each day.
If you’re working to build muscle, you’ll likely want to shoot for more. 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight is what you may need to support the new tissues and repair damage to muscles that result from strength training.
2. Protein at breakfast helps keep blood sugar and energy stable
Adding protein to your breakfast, along with healthy carbohydrates and fats, will provide a more steady, prolonged energy boost, in part by regulating your blood sugar.
Carbohydrates, particularly those without fiber, will spike your blood sugar – that can make some people feel groggy or sluggish once the spike crashes. Protein, on the other hand, doesn’t significantly affect blood sugar levels, so consuming it won’t spike your blood sugar and lead to energy crashes aftward.
Additionally, protein will help stabilize your blood sugar when you’re eating a high-carb breakfast like a bowl of cereal. Protein takes longer to break down in your digestive system, potentially slowing the release of sugars into your bloodstream. This effect could improve your energy levels with a constant stream of energy.
3. A high-protein breakfast helps regulate appetite all day long
Research repeatedly shows that consuming protein helps keep you feeling full for longer. Again, this is primarily due to the slow digestive process for protein. Studies specifically on breakfast have demonstrated that protein-rich morning meals, consisting of around 35 grams of protein, can help you stay full and satisfied for longer than lower, 13-gram protein breakfasts can.
But there’s more to protein’s hunger abating powers – studies show that eating a protein-rich breakfast positively influences hormonal and neural signals that affect how much you may eat during the day.
Hunger hormones influenced by protein intake include ghrelin and peptide YY (PYY). PYY suppresses hunger after a meal and is produced in the stomach and small intestine. Ghrelin increases feelings of hunger by sending messages to your hypothalamus when your stomach and small intestine are empty.
Oh, and if you’re someone who skips breakfast, that habit may contribute to poor diet quality and less nutritious food choices throughout the day, including snacking on foods without much nutritional value that are high in fat and sugar. While eating any breakfast is helpful, higher-protein breakfasts have the most significant impact on reducing evening snacking and improving diet quality.
4. Getting protein in the first meal of the day helps maintain muscle
Protein is vital for building and maintaining muscle. Even if you don’t lift weights and have no interest in building big biceps or quads, muscle is crucial for healthy aging and daily functioning.
As you age, muscle mass tends to decline. After the age of 30, you’re likely to lose muscle throughout the rest of your lifespan. Maintaining or building muscle is associated with healthier, more independent aging, reduced disease risk and lower all-cause mortality risk. Low muscle mass interferes with your quality of life as you grow older and reduces your ability to remain physically active.
One proven way to combat muscle loss? Consume enough protein – and do so throughout the day. When you choose to eat, that protein is a significant factor in building and maintaining muscle. An analysis published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics found that consuming a higher-protein breakfast and lunch helped people get more protein overall. It also spread out protein intake for optimal absorption and usage, a detail associated with higher muscle mass in older adults.
According to the American Society for Nutrition, most people get the majority of their daily protein with their evening meal and the least amount with breakfast. However, splitting your protein intake more evenly throughout the day will increase your ability to build and maintain muscle.
5. Your heart health may improve with a higher-protein breakfast
Skipping breakfast altogether is associated with an inferior lipid profile, which determines your cholesterol levels, triglycerides and your levels of “good” HDL and “bad” LDL cholesterol. Forgoing breakfast is also linked to increased blood pressure, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome.
While any breakfast can help, including protein provides additional benefits for your heart. A study published in Clinical Nutrition found that eating protein at breakfast is associated with reduced diastolic and systolic blood pressure to a healthy range. A normal, healthy range for blood pressure reduces your risks of cardiovascular disease, including heart disease and stroke, vascular dementia, eye conditions and kidney disease.
How to get more protein at breakfast
Convinced that adding protein to your breakfast is a smart move for your health, but curious about the best foods to achieve this? If you’re used to sweeter or carb-based breakfasts, you may be wondering how to balance the foods you enjoy with protein.
Meat and animal-based options are likely front of mind when thinking of adding protein. Eggs, ham, sausages, bacon and other traditional savory breakfast foods can boost your protein levels. But it’s wise to watch the sodium and saturated fats in some of these foods, as they can contribute to poor heart health and weight gain.
Look for lean, nutrient-dense options lower in unhealthy fats and sodium, such as eggs and egg whites, turkey bacon and sausage, and lean ham. Eggs are especially beneficial; they’re protein-packed and have been shown to increase meal satisfaction and encourage a healthy body weight compared to eating cereal for breakfast.
Dairy is another protein-packed option you can find in various delicious forms such as Greek yogurt, kefir, skyr, cottage cheese, and filtered, high-protein milk. Dairy also provides vital nutrients such as calcium, magnesium, vitamin D and probiotics that contribute to a healthy gut microbiome, weight management, muscle maintenance and heart health.
Try adding high fiber and protein-packed nuts and seeds to yogurt, cottage cheese or smoothie bowls. You can spoon these dairy options into your oatmeal and top them with whole nuts and seeds or butters.
And if oatmeal or other whole grains are a preferred breakfast for you, some high-protein grain swaps or additions can boost the protein content of your morning meal. High-protein grains include amaranth, quinoa (a seed cooked and eaten like a grain), oats and spelt. A scoop of whey protein powder will boost your bowl even more.
Thinking outside the box with non-traditional breakfast foods can also add variety to your protein-based breakfasts. Consider adding cooked ground turkey crumbles, shredded chicken, lean steak slices, or other leftover lean meats to breakfast sandwiches, scrambles, and omelets.
Plant-based eaters can make delicious scrambles using soft tofu, with a sprinkle of turmeric for color. Consider adding beans and legumes to your breakfast for protein, fiber, and nutrients like iron and magnesium. While plant-based yogurts are available, they are typically lacking in protein. However, you can add protein-rich foods to vegan yogurt using hemp seeds, pea protein powder, spirulina, and more.
Healthy high-protein breakfasts to try
Try these healthy breakfast ideas and recipes to help you reach your protein goals.