You’ve probably heard that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. While it’s hard to prove this, considering your overall dietary patterns are key to lasting health and performance, there is no question that what you eat after you roll out of bed plays a role in how well you feel the rest of the day.

Yet, many of us have a serious shortcoming when it comes to this first meal of the day—and that shortcoming in protein intake. So how important is protein in the morning? In short, very. Here’s what to know.

How important is protein in the morning?

“Endurance athletes can be more carb-oriented at breakfast which means they probably are not getting enough protein at this meal,” says protein researcher Donald K. Layman, Ph.D., professor emeritus with the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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As a general rule, Layman suggests that most athletes shoot for eating at least 30 grams of protein during their first meal of the day. He says this is enough to flip on protein synthesis (muscle building) and allows you to consume a good mixture of foods. This is also roughly the amount of protein consumed at breakfast, as well as lunch and dinner, that a Journal of Nutrition study found was able to increase muscle protein synthesis levels in a group of eight healthy men and women.

Layman adds that this also makes it easier for endurance athletes to meet their overall daily protein needs which lie between 1.2 to 1.8 grams per kilogram of body weight. “Eat less than this and your body will degrade muscle protein to meet its needs,” he says.

Indeed, surveys of endurance athletes show that many are failing to take in the amount of protein at breakfast that nutrition experts recommend. That leaves the majority of protein divided up between lunch and dinner. But regardless of your morning rush, there are several good reasons why you should fit in some time to nosh on more protein in the morning.

Here’s exactly why it’s a good idea to answer “protein” when asked, “what’s for breakfast”?

4 Key Reasons You Need Protein in the Morning

1. Muscle Building

Endurance athletes, like cyclists, need to think about their muscles and getting sufficient amounts of protein in the morning, as it’ a key factor in maintaining and building up lean body mass. Composed of long chains of amino acids, dietary protein promotes the growth of skeletal muscles. “When we sleep, our liver sources out amino acids to make enzymes and it gets these amino acids from muscle,” Layman explains.

Because of this, he says you wake up in what is known as a catabolic state, a time when you are breaking down muscle. “If you don’t eat enough protein you will stay catabolic and your muscle repair mechanism is hindered,” Layman says. That is bad news because it can lead to an overall loss of lean body mass, which Layman cautions can leave an athlete more prone to injuries. Also, having more muscle mass can help make you a stronger, faster athlete.

Now, rise and dine on enough protein, more than what you’ll get in a bowl of Cheerios, and Layman says you’ll flip the switch from a catabolic state to an anabolic one where you are putting the brakes on muscle breakdown and instead building up new muscle. “This anabolic state lasts for about two hours after a meal with sufficient amounts of protein,” notes Layman.

Research published in the journal Cell Reports found that consuming protein at breakfast was more important for increasing muscle size and function than at other times of the day. Another 2020 study in the Journal of Nutrition determined that skewing protein intake a little more toward breakfast than what is typical in the diets of most people resulted in increased muscle growth in young men who were participating in resistance training, compared to when the total amount of protein consumed was the same but with less of it consumed in the morning.

“Getting more protein at your first meal can help offset the additional repair and replacement needs of athletes,” says Layman. “The idea that endurance athletes need a lot less protein at their meals than people focused on strength training is not accurate.”

With all this said, this protein shouldn’t crowd out too much of the carbs from your breakfast. Eating sufficient amounts of carbohydrates remains very important for cyclists and other endurance athletes, as this is your primary source of energy for hard workout efforts. And an overnight fast can drain a portion of your energy reserves (glycogen) that should be restocked to optimize performance.

2. Staying Satisfied

If you typically find yourself feeling peckish come 10 a.m. and can’t seem to wait until lunch to take in more calories, perhaps it’s a sign your breakfast is too protein-light. “Eating more protein at breakfast is important for increasing satiety, which makes it less likely that someone is going to feel like they need to snack outside of mealtime,” says Layman.

It’s important to remember that among the macronutrients—carbs, fat, and protein—it’s protein that is the most satiating. One investigation published in Nutrition Research in 2010, found that men who consumed an egg-based breakfast (three scrambled eggs), which contained a considerable amount of protein, ate fewer calories (112 to be exact) when offered an unlimited lunch buffet and 400 fewer calories overall during a 24-hour period compared to when they consumed a carbohydrate-rich bagel breakfast of equal calories.

A 2022 study in the journal Obesity found that when people ate a fairly low-protein breakfast, they tended to consume larger amounts of food, and therefore calories, in subsequent meals. Worth noting is that compared to their counterparts who had lower-protein breakfasts, people who consumed higher-protein breakfasts took in fewer energy-dense foods high in saturated fats, sugar, and salt later in the day.

Going bigger on protein may impact hormones involved in appetite, such as ghrelin, which works to keep hunger at bay. Consuming enough high-quality protein during a morning meal may additionally result in more stable blood sugar numbers, which could also impact feelings of hunger.

There is also a concept endorsed by some nutrition scientists, including Layman, called the Protein Leverage Hypothesis. The belief here is that because the human body is naturally driven to seek out and consume protein, we tend to keep eating until our daily amino acid needs are met. So making dietary choices that are too low in protein can lead people to overeat, as they try to satisfy bodily protein needs, which, in turn, can contribute to unwanted weight gain.

3. A Boost in Calorie Burn

Making sure to rise and dine on protein could give your metabolism a jolt, which is especially helpful if one of your health goals is to shed a few pounds.

Layman says that higher protein eating results in elevated diet-induced thermogenesis–the increase in metabolic rate following the consumption of food and contributing to about 5 to 15 percent of total daily energy expenditure. “Protein has a markedly higher thermogenic effect than carbohydrates and fats,” Layman notes. He explains that the higher thermogenesis can largely be attributed to the increase in protein synthesis in the body that occurs after eating sufficient amounts of protein.

This, along with improved appetite control, could be one reason why several studies have shown that consuming a higher protein diet can help people achieve and maintain healthier body weights and when weight loss occurs it is less likely that significant amounts of lean body mass will also be lost. And because eating sufficient amounts of protein helps to prevent a decrease in fat-free mass, this also helps maintain a higher resting energy expenditure.

4. Improved Diet Quality

Not to be overlooked is that many protein-rich foods that are synonymous with breakfast, such as yogurt and eggs, also bring to the table other nutrients that can benefit athletes. For example, protein-packed Greek yogurt is also a good source of bone-benefiting calcium, while eggs are a valuable source of vitamin B12 and the antioxidant selenium.

This is the value of including a better mix of food groups in your morning meal. On the other hand, it’s a good idea to go easy on the greasy bacon (a processed meat) for your morning protein fix.

So how do I get more protein in the morning?

If you are getting all of your breakfast protein from plant-based sources, Laymen stresses that you may need to take in even higher amounts at this meal to make sure you are getting enough of the most anabolic amino acids that make up dietary protein, namely the amino acid leucine.

However, if you are taking in enough total protein during the day, roughly 100 to 125 grams, then he says that getting most or all of this from plant-based sources is less of a concern as you’ll probably be meeting your essential amino acid needs for muscle repair and growth. “The problem is that most vegetarians consume around 60 grams a day and then the quality becomes a big issue,” Layman says.

Good news for people who don’t wake up with a big desire to eat right away: The exact time you eat your protein-heavy breakfast doesn’t matter, so long as that meal actually contains enough protein. But he does stress that if you are someone who prefers early morning workouts then it’s best to get most of your protein afterward because the very nature of exercise is catabolic and you need the extra protein afterward to initiate muscle repair and growth. So that might mean having a smaller snack before an early ride that is higher in carbs and then having a proper meal afterward that contains a good mix of recovery carbs and protein.

So what does 30 grams—that breakfast goal—look like? These food combos will get you there:

  • 2 hard-boiled eggs, ¾ cup cottage cheese with ½ cup granola and 1/2 cup berries
  • Smoothie made with 1 cup milk, 1 scoop whey protein powder, 2 tablespoons peanut butter and 1/2 cup frozen berries
  • 1 cup Greek yogurt topped with ½ cup muesli, 2 tablespoons almonds, and 2 tablespoons hemp seeds
  • Breakfast sandwich made with English muffin, 1 fried egg, and 2 slices Canadian bacon; ½ cup kefir
  • 1 cup oatmeal with 1 scoop protein powder mixed in and topped with 2 tablespoons walnuts and ½ cup berries; 1 slice whole-grain toast topped with 2 tablespoons peanut butter and ½ sliced banana
  • 2 scrambled eggs mixed with ½ cup black beans, 1/3 cup grated cheddar cheese, ½ cup chopped bell pepper and ½ cup chopped tomato; 2 slices toast, 1 cup milk