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You’re Probably Not Getting Enough Protein at Breakfast

The best high-protein breakfasts for athletes (and no, you don't have to eat eggs).


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A breakfast of champions is not built solely around carb-heavy cereal and toast.  Every athlete also needs plenty of protein in the morning for optimal fitness gains. No shade to your cherished oatmeal, but research is uncovering some truths about the importance of breakfast foods with a better protein profile. Here’s why you should have an appetite for them after rolling out of bed.

An intriguing study published in the July issue of the Cell Reports discovered that protein intake at breakfast induced a greater increase in muscle growth (i.e. hypertrophy) when compared to consuming protein at dinner. This is a nutrition concept called ‘chrononutrition,’ meaning when you eat is as important as what you eat.

This is not the first investigation to find that boosting protein intake early in the day is a wise move. A report in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that daily muscle protein synthesis, a key towards building a stronger and more injury resistant body, was greater in participants when they ate as much protein at breakfast as they did at dinner instead of skewing protein intake towards later in the day. Similarly, this study determined that moving some of the protein from dinner to breakfast did a better job at increasing muscle growth in active men than did consuming more protein at dinner and less at breakfast. This was the case as long as total protein intake for the day was sufficient.

“There is research to suggest that our circadian rhythm influences bodily functions, including nutrient absorption and metabolism,” says Jim White, RD, owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios. For this reason, he says that our bodies appear to be particularly responsive to the protein we feed them in the morning. “It could be true that a majority of people, not just athletes, could benefit from consuming more protein at breakfast.” Sneaking in a bit more of this macronutrient during your morning meal can also improve feelings of satiety throughout the morning so you may find yourself being less prone to mindlessly snacking before lunch.

Research findings like these will hopefully spur on a modification in current dietary patterns among Americans who traditionally consume low amounts of protein at breakfast and much more at dinner. To maximize muscle tissue anabolism, it appears best to consume breakfast protein at a target intake of 0.4 g/kg/bw. So for a 120-pound female athlete that would be about 22 grams of protein for breakfast and 31 grams for a 170-pound male. A level that many people struggle to attain in a world of morning cereal, toast and fruit.

Here are some meal ideas for putting a little more muscle into your breakfast – and no, eggs aren’t your only option for getting protein into your morning meal.

Photo: Getty Images

The Best High-Protein Breakfasts for Athletes

Cottage Cheese

Try: 1 cup cottage cheese topped with 2 tablespoons hemp seeds, 1/4 cup granola and 1/2 cup blueberries
Protein total: 38 grams

Underappreciated cottage cheese is packed to the brim with protein – about 24 grams in a 3/4 cup serving. That’s more than you’d get from a breakfast bowl of Greek yogurt! You don’t need to settle for the less satisfying fat-free stuff, as recent research including this study and this one strongly suggests that dairy fat is not bad news for your ticker. With more protein than most nuts and seeds, hemp seeds (a.k.a. hemp hearts) are a stealthy, and tasty, way to bolster your breakfast protein. Bonus: they supply good amounts of necessary omega-3 fatty acids. 

Oatmeal

Try: 1 cup oatmeal mixed with 1 scoop plant-based protein powder, topped with 10 chopped almonds and 1 sliced banana
Protein total: 33 grams

If you are going all-in on plant-based eating, it can be more challenging – but not impossible – to load up on breakfast protein. Stirring a scoop of plant protein powder into your morning oats is an easy way to sneak in more of the muscle-building macro into your morning routine. Recent evidence shows that plant-based protein powders, such as those made from peas, can be just as helpful in building bigger and stronger muscles as the vaunted whey variety. Stir in chocolate-flavored powder, and your go-to breakfast oatmeal will taste more like dessert. Remember: even grains and nuts contain high levels of protein, adding to the total.

Eggs

Try: 3 hard-boiled eggs (1 whole egg and 2 whites)  + 1 slice whole grain toast with 2 tablespoons peanut butter + 1/2 cup plain Greek or Skyr yogurt topped with 1/2 cup sliced strawberries
Protein total: 32 grams

“Eggs and egg whites are great sources of high-quality protein and are generally convenient for breakfast,” notes White. The white orbs are still one of the best ways to roll out of bed and start building muscle. With the caveat that more research is needed on various demographics including female athletes, this new investigation in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise found there is little evidence that eating whole eggs is better for building muscle than egg whites. That’s good news if you are still concerned about eating too much cholesterol from egg yolks. Add in toast with peanut butter, which has more protein than most other nut spreads, plus a bowl of deliciously thick Greek or Skyr yogurt to put this breakfast over the protein threshold.

Smoked Salmon

Try: 1 toasted English muffin topped with 1/2 smashed avocado, 2 ounces smoked salmon, 1 fried egg and 1 cup baby spinach.  
Protein total: 23 grams

Smoked salmon and eggs lend this breakfast sandwich useful amounts of leucine, an amino acid that is especially important in promoting muscle protein synthesis.  Look for English muffin options that list whole wheat flour as the first ingredient to up the nutrition ante. This hand-held meal would be a great recovery option after a sunrise workout.

Smoothies

Try: Blend together 1 cup milk, 1/2 cup ricotta cheese, 1/3 cup pumpkin puree, 1 scoop plain or vanilla protein powder of choice, 1 tablespoon almond butter, 1 teaspoon maple syrup, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract and 1 frozen chopped banana.
Protein total: 46 grams

Creamy and rich-tasting ricotta is higher in muscle-benefiting whey protein than other cheese varieties. This in-season breakfast smoothie tastes so much like Thanksgiving dessert, that you’ll forget that it’s a great way to get all the early day protein your muscles crave. 

Quick breakfasts with high protein

These convenient items will make rising and dining on more protein easier than ever.

Kodiak Cakes Power Cakes Flapjack & Waffle Mix
kodiakcakes.com

A shot of whey powder gives this whole-grain pancake mix higher amounts of protein than its competitors. Just add water and keep the maple syrup handy.

Earnest Eats Mighty Maple Protein & Probiotic Oatmeal Cup
earnesteats.com

The crave-worthy maple flavor is accompanied by 16 grams of protein from grass-fed whey and a dose of gut-friendly probiotics. Top with some chopped nuts for crunch and a little extra protein.

Fairlife Corepower Strawberry Banana
fairlife.com

This grab-and-go milkshake floods your body with 26 grams of high-quality protein and gleans most of its sweetness from real fruit puree.

Fuel for Fire Berry Acai Fruit Smoothie
fuelforfire.com

If you don’t have the energy to fire up the blender in the morning this squeezable smoothie pack is your answer to a fruity-protein combo. Bonus points for not sneaking in any added sugars.

Over Easy Peanut Butter Breakfast Bar
overeasyfoods.com

The tasty oat-peanut butter combo is bolstered by the clever addition of protein-dense egg whites. The impressive six grams of dietary fiber helps give this bar more staying power.

Evolve Café Mocha Plant-Based Protein Shake
drinkevolve.com

Each shelf-stable tetra pack supplies a winning mix of 20 grams of protein (from pea protein isolate) and 10 grams of hunger-busting fiber. And who doesn’t love the taste of mocha to perk up their morning?

Oats Overnight Peach Upside-Down Cake
oatsovernight.com

Stir together a packet with milk, plant or moo-variety, soak overnight and boom….a near instant oatmeal breakfast with fresh peach flavor that gives you a lofty 22 grams of protein and some great fats from chia and flax. This one gleans most of its protein from whey, but some flavors are infused instead with plant-based pea protein.

Alpha Protein Supreme Breakfast Burrito
eatalphafoods.com

Somehow the combination of tofu scramble, dairy-free cheese and faux bacon crumble tastes like the real deal. Each microwave-ready burrito offers up 17 grams of no-meat protein and a savory way to kickstart your day. Even better served with some chunky salsa.