There are lots of reasons to eat protein at breakfast. Protein helps keep you full and satisfied until lunch. And a new study suggests it might even help curb snacking at night.
If you keep up with the latest in dietary advice, you can probably list a few reasons why protein is such an important nutrient. It’s necessary, of course, to help you build and maintain your muscle mass. And it’s also known to be a much better at filling you up than either fat or carbohydrate. That’s why we suggest that people aim to have a good source of protein at each meal or snack. The idea is simply this: high-carb meals don’t stay with you, while higher protein meals can help control hunger from one meal to the next. But here’s something else: a recent study by Heather Leidy1 suggests that a high protein breakfast not only helps control your appetite until the next meal, it might reduce unhealthy snacking in the evening.
How Protein Measures Up
Adolescents are notorious breakfast-skippers, and that breakfast skipping is associated with weight gain. Researchers at the University of Missouri studied the effects of different breakfast meals in 20 overweight teenage girls—who typically ate breakfast no more than twice a week.
The girls were asked to do the following, in no particular order: One week, they skipped breakfast each day, one week they had a high-protein breakfast every day (35 grams), and one week they had a lower protein breakfast every day (13 grams). What the researchers wanted to know was how the different meals affected their appetite, hunger levels between meals, food cravings and evening snacking.
To measure all these things, the girls completed questionnaires about their level of hunger and satisfaction during the day, and they had brain scans done just before dinner. The scans allowed the researchers to see how certain areas of the brain responded—in particular, those that are involved in food cravings—when the girls were shown pictures of appealing foods. Then the girls went home with a cooler full of goodies, a huge assortment of salty snacks, candy, ice cream, fruit, pizza, macaroni and cheese. And they were told they could eat as much as they wanted during the evening.
When all was said and done, the high-protein breakfast had several advantages over the low-protein one (and certainly over no breakfast at all). For one thing, the girls said the high-protein breakfast was more filling—no surprise there. But during the week that they ate the high-protein breakfast, their brain activity was different. There was less activity in the areas of the brain responsible for food cravings—and the girls ate less high-fat, high-sugar foods after dinner.
This is an interesting twist on the whole story. It suggests that a high-protein breakfast not only helps keep you full until lunch but may even help curb your intake over the course of the day. Getting in 35 grams of protein at one time, as they did in the study, might be a bit of a challenge. But you can get close—25 grams is actually fairly easy to do.
Want to Up Your Protein at Breakfast?
Here are some meals to try, all of which will give you about 25 grams of protein.
- A protein shake with nonfat milk. A portion of milk provides about 10 grams of protein, and you can adjust the protein powder in your shake to boost the protein up
- A portion of plain nonfat cottage cheese with fruit and a handful of almonds
- An omelet made with 2 whole eggs or 4 egg whites, filled with veggies and an ounce of low fat mozzarella cheese
- Cook rolled oats in nonfat milk then top then stir in protein powder after it’s cooked. Top with a dab of almond butter
- Spread some nonfat cream cheese on 100% whole grain toast and top with 3 ounces smoked salmon
Of course, this is only one recent study, and its conclusions are not yet the state of the science on this topic. But there is good support in the scientific literature for the general proposition that protein intake under the right circumstances produce feelings of satiety.
Posted by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training