The power of protein at breakfast: 'Still working at dinner'

By Susie Burrell|

What's your go to breakfast of choice? A bowl of wholegrain granola with yoghurt and berries? Or, do you love nothing more than eggs on toast with a side of spinach and tomatoes? Or maybe you are more of a grab a coffee and run kind of person?

Whatever your choice of breakfast, there is growing research to show that the macronutrient content of our breakfast can not only influence our appetite and blood glucose control after breakfast, but for the whole day.

This means the balance of our breakfast appears just as important as the overall calorie load and meal timing when it comes to powering through the day. 

READ MORE: Is a cheat meal undoing your diet?

What's your go-to breakfast? (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Carbs at breakfast

We have known for some time that the type of carbohydrate consumed at breakfast time, whether it has a lower or higher glycaemic index, plays a role in blood glucose regulation.

Lower GI carbohydrates including wholegrain breads, wholegrain breakfast cereals such as oats and dairy generally result in much more controlled blood glucose levels.

This is compared to higher GI, more refined carbohydrates such as Turkish bread, flake style breakfast cereals, and sugary options such as muffins and cakes, which see blood glucose and insulin levels rise much more rapidly, followed by a subsequent drop. 

Protein at breakfast

In addition, we have also known that consuming a decent amount of protein at breakfast, or roughly 20 grams, helps to keep insulin and glucose levels more tightly controlled post meal.

And the amount found in protein yoghurts and breads, a couple of eggs or fish such as smoked salmon, achieve the same, simply because protein as a nutrient is more slowly digested than carbohydrate. 

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Woman holding bunch of eggs
Protein as a nutrient is more slowly digested than carbohydrate.  (iStockphoto)

Protein and blood glucose control

Now, researchers have further built on this knowledge with research published in the journal Nutrients. In this study, healthy adults were fed a high-protein breakfast, with or without a lunch meal, before having their post meal glucose levels monitored throughout the day.

It was found that not only was a higher protein breakfast meal associated with better glucose control post breakfast, as well as lunch, but also after dinner. Basically, finding that protein helped to keep blood glucose levels better controlled throughout the entire day. 

Why is blood glucose control important?

Blood glucose control is important for everyone, regardless of your risk of developing diabetes, as tightly controlled glucose levels help to regulate appetite, likely as a result of more tightly controlled insulin levels.

As insulin is the central regulator of both glucose and fat metabolism in the body, more controlled insulin levels supports fat metabolism and weight control. It also means you are less likely to experience the glucose highs and lows which can drive cravings and a feeling of uncontrolled hunger which can drive mindless munching and ultimately overeating. 

READ MORE: 10 'healthy' breakfasts that are more like dessert

dietitian susie burrell
Better control of glucose levels will help reduce cravings and uncontrolled hunger, Susie Burrel says. (Susie Burrell)

Are you getting enough protein?

The good news is that is it exceptionally easy to tick the box on protein at breakfast time. All you need is a good source of animal-based protein from dairy, fish or lean meat.

Or, if your preference is for plant-based eating, seek out a good quality plant-based protein or utilise the growing range of protein breads and wraps to ensure you are reaching at least 20 grams of protein at breakfast. 

Not only will a focus on protein support appetite control through the morning, but its effect appears to still be working at dinner time. 

In food terms you can find 20 grams of protein in two eggs, baked beans and wholegrain toast, protein toast with ricotta and banana, a protein shake or serve of protein yoghurt.

The worst foods

If you grab an almond milk Latte, muffin, toast or banana bread on the way to work or school, your breakfast protein intake may be as low as 5 grams, which may also explain why you spend the morning irritable and seeking out snacks to top up your blood glucose levels.

If you need a quick breakfast on the go, look for mini wraps, protein smoothies, or even make yourself a sandwich the night before as there are very few café options that tick the box on protein. 

Author Susie Burrell is a leading Australian dietitian and nutritionist, founder of Shape Me, co-host of The Nutrition Couch podcast and prominent media spokesperson, with regular appearances in both print and television media commenting on all areas of diet, weight loss and nutrition.

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