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.
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.
Here are some meals to try, all of which will give you about 25 grams of protein.
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.
1Leidy et al. Am J Clin Nutr 2013;97:677-88.
Susan is the Sr. Director of Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training at Herbalife, where she is responsible for the development of nutrition education and training materials, and is one of the primary authors of the Herbalife-sponsored blog, www.discovergoodnutrition.com. She is a Registered Dietitian and holds two Board Certifications from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, and a Certified Specialist in Obesity and Weight Management. Susan is also a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Susan graduated with distinction in biology from the University of Colorado, and received her master’s degree in Food Science and Nutrition from Colorado State University. She then completed her dietetic internship at the University of Kansas. Susan has taught extensively and developed educational programs targeted to individuals, groups and industry in her areas of expertise, including health promotion, weight management and sports nutrition.
Prior to her role at Herbalife, she was the assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, and has held appointments as adjunct professor in nutrition at Pepperdine University and as lecturer in nutrition in the Department of Food Science and Nutrition at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.
Susan was a consultant to the (then) Los Angeles Raiders for six seasons, and was a contributing columnist for the Los Angeles Times Health Section for two years. She is a co-author of 23 research papers, 14 book chapters, and was a co-author of two books for the public: “What Color is Your Diet?” and “The L.A. Shape Diet” by Dr. David Heber, published by Harper Collins in 2001 and 2004, respectively.