When it comes to nutrition advice, I practice what I preach. After all, I write about diet and healthy aging; I don’t want to pursue unhealthy aging. But one piece of advice is harder to follow: eat signficantly more protein at breakfast.
The ‘Why’ of more protein at breakfast
We lose muscle mass as we age. The name for this process is sarcopenia. It can’t be stopped (as far as we know), but it can be slowed. The current official protein recommendation is 0.8 grams dietary protein per kilogram body weight (0.36 grams per pound) per day. Studies comparing protein metabolism in older adults to different meal patterns show that an intake of 1 to 1.2 grams protein per kg can decrease muscle loss.
There’s a catch: your protein intake should be spread as evenly as possible throughout the day. Protein utilization by older adults is improved when breakfast, lunch and dinner included roughly equal amounts of protein. For most of us, that means significantly boosting protein at breakfast.
How much protein: a good Rule of Thumb
Let’s do some math. According to the 0.8 g/kg idea, a 140 lb person should consume 51 grams of protein daily. That isn’t very much. Plenty of people already eat more than that. If you use the 1 to 1.2g/kg value, the recommended daily intake is 64-76 grams protein daily, or about 20-25 grams per meal. That’s a significant amount of protein, like eating a 3 egg omelet every morning.
Recommendations are nice, but I’m trying to be realistic about what people can and will eat. Appetite, food preferences, timing and busy schedules all impact our food choices. A daily 3 egg cheese omelet probably isn’t an option for most older people (especially considering the cost of eggs today!). My recommendation for women is a goal of 20 grams of protein at breakfast; for men 25.
What’s on your plate?
It’s easy to get stuck in a low protein breakfast pattern. I admit I belong to that club. I love toast, but I can’t live on bread alone. You might not have much of an appetite in the morning, and high protein foods can seem unappetizing. Easier to just have toast and coffee, oatmeal and fruit or cold cereal. Our beverage choices don’t always help. Juice, coffee, and tea have zero protein. Adding milk (real milk, not almond or oat milk) adds a bit of protein, but not 20 grams.
Here are the amounts of some common breakfast foods that would provide roughly 20 grams of protein:
- 3/4 cup lowfat cottage cheese
- 3 large eggs
- 2-1/2 cups lowfat milk
- 1-1/2 cups plain lowfat yogurt
- 3/4 cup nonfat plain Greek style yogurt
- 3 ounces Cheddar cheese
- 8 slices cooked bacon
- 8 slices cooked turkey bacon
- 6 TB peanut butter
- 1-1/3 cups walnut halves (! at a cost of 860 calories)
- 2 cups refried beans
- 1 cup hummus
Some of these portions are pretty intimidating. The idea of eating two 8-oz cups of refried beans or one entire cup of hummus just doesn’t sound appealing. But you don’t need to get all your protein from just one food. Cereals and bread have small amounts. Here are some possible combinations that add up to about 20 grams of protein:
- 1 cup cooked oatmeal + 2 TB walnut halves + 1/2 cup Greek style yogurt
- An omelet with 2 eggs and an ounce of cheese
- Small dish of cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit plus a slice of peanut butter toast
- 1 large pita spread with 1/4 cup hummus plus glass of milk (or large latte with milk).
Given the price and availability of eggs these days, you might want to branch out to other protein sources. That might mean unconventional breakfast foods.
Fast food breakfast sandwiches are popular, but you can make your own healthier (lower sodium/lower fat) version. Make your sandwich with bread, a tortilla, pita or a bagel. Fill with 2 oz sliced meat like turkey or chicken, or tuna or salmon salad. Add cheese if you like, or perhaps a slice of bacon. Another option: a burrito with refried beans, cheese and chopped vegetables. Smoothies are another possibility, if you include yogurt, milk or whey or soy protein powder in your smoothie. Speaking of beverages, if you’re morning meal includes a latte (coffee or chai/tea) made with real milk or soy milk, you would be getting some significant protein from those.
If you aren’t in the habit of including high protein foods at breakfast, start with more modest portions. Add one egg, or 1/2 cup cottage cheese to your usual meal, or melt some cheese on your toast. Over time you can gradually increase the high protein foods at your morning meal. It’s worth the effort, for your muscles and for another reason: better satiety. Digestion will be slowed and your meal will sustain you longer through the morning, to your next meal. It’s a good strategy if weight loss is one of your goals.