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The Importance of Eating Enough Protein at Breakfast

The Importance of Eating Enough Protein at Breakfast

It is no secret that the typical American breakfast is pretty light on protein.  If your breakfast consists of a cup of coffee along with a bagel, a muffin or a waffle, your protein intake at breakfast time will likely be between 2 to 10 grams.  Why is that a problem?  It is well understood that eating enough protein is necessary in order to build and maintain muscle mass.  The recommended daily allowance of protein is 0.8 grams/kilogram of body weight.  This means that a person that weighs 75 kilograms (165 pounds) should be consuming ~60 grams/day of protein.  If that person only consumes between 2 to 10 grams of protein for breakfast, their protein intake distribution will be one that is skewed rather than one that is even.  While it is important to reach one’s recommended daily allowance of protein, many research studies have demonstrated the importance of evenly consuming protein with each meal [1-4].  A National Dairy Council study concluded that higher protein consumption during the breakfast meal was correlated with lower total calorie consumption during lunch [4].  Consuming protein is associated with satiety (feeling “full” after a meal) and so people are less likely to overeat through the day if they have had a breakfast that is high in protein (i.e. eggs, protein shakes, Greek yogurt) as opposed to a protein light breakfast such as muffins or donuts.  This has important implications as it relates to fat loss and managing obesity.  

However, eating protein at breakfast is not only important as it relates to fat loss but rather is very important when it comes to building muscle mass.  Researchers in the Department of Nutrition and Metabolism at the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston wanted to study the impact of how protein is consumed throughout the day has on the body’s ability to build muscle tissue [3].  They designed two 7-day diet plans in order to assess this:

1) “EVEN” – subjects consumed ~30 grams of protein during their breakfast, lunch and dinner and

2) “SKEWED” – subjects consumed ~ 11 grams of protein during breakfast, ~ 16 grams of protein during lunch and ~ 63 grams of protein during dinner.  

In both diet plans, the total amount of protein consumed was ~90 grams per day.  Each subject was placed on each of the two 7-day diet plans with a 30 day “washout” period in between (such a study design is known as a “crossover study design” and has the advantage that each subject acts as their own control.)  Using a sophisticated tracer technique and performing muscle biopsies, they were able to determine that the muscle protein synthesis rate was ~25% higher when subjects were on an “EVEN” diet relative to the “SKEWED” diet.  

In a study involving community dwelling senior citizens (≥ 75 years of age) in Germany, a significant correlation was observed between protein intake distribution and frailty status as seniors who consumed a low amount of protein and then compensated for it throughout the day were much more likely to be frail [2].  It was interesting that there was no correlation observed in this study between total daily protein intake and frailty status.  

Remember: it’s not just about how much protein that you consume in a day; it’s also about how that protein consumption is distributed throughout the day.


1. Deer, Rachel R., and Elena Volpi. "Protein intake and muscle function in older adults." Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care 18.3 (2015): 248.

2. Bollwein, Julia, et al. "Distribution but not amount of protein intake is associated with frailty: a cross-sectional investigation in the region of Nürnberg." Nutrition journal 12.1 (2013): 109.

3. Mamerow, Madonna M., et al. "Dietary protein distribution positively influences 24-h muscle protein synthesis in healthy adults." The Journal of nutrition 144.6 (2014): 876-880.

4. Rains, Tia M., et al. "Protein intake at breakfast is associated with reduced energy intake at lunch: an analysis of NHANES 2003–2006." The FASEB Journal 27.1 Supplement (2013): 349-7.

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