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food for thought

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD

Chances are, you know the benefits of eating enough protein. The sought-after nutrient supports muscle-building, immune health and wound healing, to name only a few of its vital functions.

You might not, however, give much thought to when you consume that protein. Turns out, there are good reasons why you should.

Even if you’re meeting your daily protein quota, you’re likely not getting its maximal benefit if you consume most of it at dinner.

Evidence suggests that forgoing – or skimping – protein at your morning meal can hinder weight loss, muscle health and perhaps even blood-sugar control.

Here’s what the research says, plus tasty ways to get your morning dose of protein.

Protein at breakfast supports muscle function

A 2017 study from McGill University in Montreal revealed that evenly distributing protein intake over three meals, instead of skewing it to the evening meal, was associated with greater muscle strength in older adults.

In healthy younger adults, consuming 30 grams of protein at each meal (versus 10 g at breakfast, 15 g at lunch and 65 g at dinner) was shown to increase muscle protein synthesis by 25 per cent.

Balancing your protein intake over three meals makes sense since there’s a limit to the rate at which the building blocks of protein (amino acids) can be synthesized into muscle tissue. But the morning also seems to be an important time to get your protein fix.

Research from Waseda University in Tokyo, published in 2021, found that among healthy older adults, those who ate more protein at breakfast than at dinner had better muscle strength and mass compared with people who did the opposite.

Because of the body’s internal biological clock, or circadian rhythms, it’s thought our muscle cells may be better primed to synthesize protein in the morning rather than later in the day.

Protein at breakfast curbs appetite

Eating breakfast – versus skipping it – has been shown to reduce appetite and food cravings. Eating a high-protein breakfast, though, may enhance those benefits.

Studies have found that, compared with breakfasts containing 13 g of protein, those with more (30 to 35 g) do a better job at increasing daily fullness, reducing appetite and curtailing evening snacking on foods high in fat, sugar or both.

Eating a high-protein breakfast is thought to prevent the release of ghrelin, an appetite-stimulating hormone, and increase the release of satiety hormones. The sweet spot for appetite control, according to research, is 30 g of protein at breakfast.

Protein at breakfast aids blood-sugar control

A 2017 study found that, compared with eating a high-carbohydrate or high-fat breakfast, when participants ate a high-protein breakfast (30 per cent of calories), they had lower rises in blood glucose and insulin after eating white bread four hours after the morning meal.

Eating a high-protein meal is thought to slow stomach emptying, leading to a slower and lower rise in blood sugar.

Six ways to add more protein to your breakfast

The following ideas can help you incorporate 30 g of protein, plus plenty of other nutrients, into your morning meal.

  1. Make a yogurt parfait with unsweetened Greek or Icelandic yogurt (24 g protein per one cup). Layer with berries and two tablespoons of hemp seeds (6.5 g protein).
  2. Top a sprouted grain bagel (8 g protein) with three ounces of smoked salmon (21 g protein) and light ricotta cheese (3 g protein per 2 tablespoons). Garnish with thinly sliced red onion and capers.
  3. Try a tofu scramble. Crumble 100 g of extra-firm tofu (16.5 g protein) and sauté with chopped bell pepper, onion, baby spinach and spices (for example, turmeric, cumin and chili powder). Toss in a half-cup of black beans (9 g protein). Serve with a corn tortilla. (Total 31 g protein)
  4. Make whole-grain porridge with a higher-protein grain such as teff (10 g protein per one cup cooked), quinoa (6 g) or barley (6 g). Cook grains in milk for extra protein. Top with one-third cup Greek yogurt (8 g protein) and two tablespoons of pumpkin seeds (5 g protein).
  5. Breakfast protein boosters include nut butter, nuts and seeds (smoothies, overnight oats, porridge), cottage and ricotta cheese (pancake batters, smoothies, breakfast bowls, omelets) and leftover cooked fish or chicken (frittatas, breakfast sandwiches).
  6. Protein shakes work, too. But if your goal is to reap protein’s satiating effect, keep in mind that liquid protein meals probably won’t satiate you as long as a meal with solid protein.

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