Breakfast is the best time to kickstart an entire day’s worth of healthy habits. “The problem is most people struggle not only to get enough protein in their first meal, but also to eat a balanced breakfast that includes healthy carbs and fats,” says Lauren Harris-Pincus, RD, author of the “Protein-Packed Breakfast Club.”
Harris-Pincus recommends aiming for at least 20 grams of protein at your morning meal, which can pay off in myriad ways:
IT HELPS MAINTAIN (AND BUILD) MUSCLE
To stay lean and strong as the years tick by, you need to pay attention to this macronutrient. Research shows consuming protein at breakfast not only helps minimize muscle loss as you age, but consuming more protein at breakfast (as opposed to lunch or dinner) can help you build more muscle.
IT FUELS YOUR METABOLISM
One of the many reasons you should aim to preserve muscle mass is it’s key to preventing weight gain. “Part of the reason someone might gain weight as they age is because of a slowing of their metabolism, resulting in lean muscle mass loss,” explains Harris-Pincus. Protein takes more energy to breakdown, so consuming an adequate amount can help increase metabolic burn after meals.
IT ENHANCES PERFORMANCE
If you work out in the morning, then you’ll want to come home and replenish with a protein-focused breakfast. “Protein stimulates muscle-protein synthesis to improve recovery and enhance performance during your next workout,” says Chicago-based registered dietitian Maggie Michalczyk.
IT FILLS YOU UP
“Just grabbing a coffee and a bowl of cereal contains very little protein, leaving you starving in an hour,” says Harris-Pincus. On the other hand, “the magic combo” of protein and fiber, like these protein-packed overnight oats keeps you feeling full until lunch.
YOUR THOUGHTS WON’T BE CONSUMED BY FOOD
If you’re physically satisfied by your food, “you’re less likely to be thinking about [it] all morning, since protein takes longer to digest,” notes Michalczyk. That can free up your time to tackle other important matters on your to-do list, rather than staring at the clock waiting for lunch.
YOU’RE LESS LIKELY TO ACT ON CRAVINGS
If you find yourself constantly reaching for pastries in the break room as a “second breakfast,” it’s a sign you should add more protein to your breakfast. “It makes you less susceptible to the temptations of the day,” says Harris-Pincus. Research shows protein does this by regulating hunger levels and neural responses to food.
YOU SET YOUR ENTIRE DAY UP FOR SUCCESS
If you’re riding a blood sugar roller coaster, the ups and downs can make it tough to take control of your eating habits, and you’re more likely to choose quick-digesting simple carbs (aka sugar) for energy. On the other hand, “starting with a protein-rich breakfast really helps to set up your whole day [for good habits],” says Michalczyk. “If you’re at a more manageable hunger level when deciding on lunch, it’s more likely you’ll choose foods you know will nourish you,” adds Harris-Pincus.
YOU’LL MAKE SMARTER SNACK CHOICES
“A protein-packed breakfast activates the body’s signals that curb appetite, which reduces cravings and overeating,” says Michalczyk. This sets you up to make your afternoon snack count.” You’ll be less likely to graze mindlessly or reach for something from the vending machine and instead more likely to stick with the healthy snack you brought like an apple and cheese stick or a handful of nuts.
YOU’LL BE BETTER ABLE TO MEET YOUR BODY’S NEEDS
It’s common to skimp on protein at breakfast and then try to compensate by eating extra at dinner. But “doubling up at a later meal isn’t an effective strategy since your body can only utilize about 25–35 grams of protein at one time,” says Harris-Pincus. “More evenly distributing protein by starting with a protein-rich breakfast intake means that the macro is available to your body when it needs it to support bodily functions.”
YOU’LL HAVE FEWER CRAVINGS FOR LESS-NUTRITIOUS FOODS
One way to perpetuate a taste for refined carbs (i.e. white toast, croissants, sugary cereal) is regularly eating more refined carbs. “When you switch over to high-protein foods, you’ll experience fewer cravings for these refined carbs. Not because it’s protein, but because you’re making a change to the kinds of foods you’re eating,” says Harris-Pincus.
IT’S EASIER TO EAT FEWER CALORIES
“If you’re trying to lose weight, your end-of-the-day goal is to be in a calorie deficit,” says Harris-Pincus. There are several ways to go about that, but one of the more balanced and sustainable ways is to eat a high-quality, nutrient-rich diet that focuses on protein and fiber. With this eating pattern, “you may consume fewer calories in a day because you’re more satisfied,” she says.
YOU’LL SNACK LESS AT NIGHT
Just like morning and afternoon snacking, the effects of breakfast can extend all the way to before bed. In a study in Current Developments in Nutrition, compared to skipping breakfast completely, high-protein breakfast eaters were less likely to snack on high-carb and high-fat foods and ate less sugar in the evening, too.
YOU’LL SLEEP BETTER
Sounder snoozing is a side effect you probably didn’t expect, but that same research in Current Developments in Nutrition found people who ate high-protein breakfasts fell asleep faster and reported better-quality sleep compared to people who skipped breakfast.