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Power Up Protein at Breakfast

By Kathleen M. Zelman, MPH, RD

You've heard it before, "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper." Breakfast may indeed be the most important meal of the day. It breaks-the-fast, provides fuel, and sets the stage for a healthy nutrient intake.

Yet according to a 2011 survey by the NPD Group, as many as 1 in 10 or roughly 31 million people skip breakfast each day in the U.S.

Breakfast is a marker of diet quality. People who eat breakfast have healthier diets overall with higher intakes of essential nutrients such as calcium, fiber and protein.

Years of studies have shown an association of breakfast with enhanced academic and physical performance, improved concentration, weight control, appetite control and a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes.

But not all breakfasts are created equally. Starting your day with a meal that includes ample high-quality protein is the secret to a healthy start to the day.

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Importance of Protein at Breakfast

Diets rich in high-quality protein have the potential to preserve muscle mass, reduce fat storage, regulate energy, promote fullness and enhance weight control. Enjoying adequate protein in the morning breaks the overnight fast and sets the stage for sustained energy levels.

"Adding a protein source at breakfast stabilizes blood sugar and insulin which leads to the ability to burn fats," explains University of Illinois protein researcher, Donald Layman, PhD.

Purdue University's Richard Mattes, PhD, RD, agrees. "Protein at breakfast has insulin sensitizing properties to control swings in blood sugar and also tends to be most satisfying when consumed as part of a solid food system instead of a beverage."

Further, protein at breakfast can have lasting benefits. One study showed eating a protein-rich breakfast reduces unhealthy evening snacking of high fat and/or high sugar foods and has a greater impact on appetite control, satiety and controls food cravings throughout the day.1

Put More Quality Protein on the Plate at Breakfast

Many foods on the breakfast menu are low in protein and high in refined carbohydrates. Common sources of protein at breakfast are eggs and dairy.

But one egg or milk on your cereal may not be enough. Both the quality and quantity of protein are important at breakfast.

Adequate amounts of protein provide the right concentrations of the amino acid leucine, which may play an important role in muscle health and weight control.

A 2007 study found eating eggs for breakfast helped individuals lose more weight and reduce their waist size more than dieters who consumed a bagel breakfast of the same calorie count. Even though eggs were involved, he participants in the study did not see an increase in cholesterol levels.2

How Much Protein at Breakfast?

More may be better when it comes to protein and good health. To achieve a healthy protein level, one should eat about 25-30 grams of protein. Protein rich foods such as eggs, lean meat, low-fat dairy, beans, nuts, soy and seafood are good choices for breakfast.

Sample high-protein breakfast meals:

  • Half of a cantaloupe filled with 1 cup of cottage cheese
  • Corn tortilla filled with two scrambled eggs, sautéed onions, 1/4 cup of black beans and pico de gallo
  • 1 cup high-protein cereal with 1/2 cup non-fat plain Greek yogurt, toasted chopped walnuts and 1 cup fresh fruit
  • Layer 8 oz. non-fat plain Greek yogurt with 1 cup fresh berries, slivered almonds and 1/2 cup quick-cooking oats for a parfait
  • Two egg veggie frittata and a whole-wheat English muffin
  • 1 and 1/2 cups high protein whole grain cereal with 1 cup skim milk and 1/2 small banana


Richard Mattes, MPH, PhD, RD, distinguished professor of nutrition science, Purdue University.

Donald K. Layman, PhD, Professor Emeritus, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Illinois.

1Leidy HJ, Ortinau LC, Douglas SM, Hoertel HA. Beneficial effects of a higher-protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese, "breakfast-skipping," late-adolescent girls. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(4):677-688.

2Dhurandar, N, Vander, J, et al. Egg breakfast enhances weight loss. FASEB, April 2007; A326.

Dhurandhar NV. Breakfast containing egg proteins induces greater satiety compared to a breakfast with lower protein quality. European Congress on Obesity 2012. Lyon, France. May 12, 2012.

Morning Mealscape 2011 NPD Group survey

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