I recently attended an early morning business association meeting at which we were served a hearty breakfast of bacon, eggs, hash browns and assorted muffins.
I was being honest when I commented to the people at my table how much I looked forward to these meetings because it was the only time I got to eat a “traditional” breakfast.
Most days my breakfast is a high-protein shake, but I still occasionally enjoy other options. My comment led to conversation at the table about what each of us routinely eats for breakfast. The response seemed to fall into two camps: the high-protein group and the bread & cereal group.
Interesting, but not surprising, the high-protein group reported that what led them to their choice was the sustained level of energy and alertness they experienced when they included protein in their breakfast.
A high-carb breakfast of bread, cereal, a muffin or bagel and no protein left them feeling sluggish, even drowsy by mid-morning. I know this to be true because I too have experienced it.
To test this theory even further, I interviewed some of my executive colleagues who are busy, successful and fit. I asked them what they ate for breakfast, what led them to their choices and what they did to stay fit.
Andy Serio, president of the Health Care System Consultants division of The Horton Group, says that his high-protein breakfast of two poached eggs on whole wheat toast carries him through most of the day, especially when he doesn’t eat lunch. He often works through the lunch hour, or uses that time to practice his exercise of choice, which is DanceSport, a competitive form of ballroom dancing. “The energy and fitness required to compete at a national level in dance requires core strength, flexibility, balance and a healthy diet,” says Serio.
Jane Wood, executive director of Community Health Charities, also is a fan of the egg breakfast. Her breakfast includes an eggbeater omelet with mango-salsa and fat-free cheese, a slice of sprouted grain bread and an orange. “There is a significantly noticeable difference in my energy level with this breakfast as opposed to when I eat a croissant and fruit which leaves me feeling sluggish mid-morning.” Jane’s exercise routine includes 20 to 30 of weights on an exercise ball and a workout on the treadmill two to three times per week.
Limited time in the morning doesn’t keep Ron Baake, president of the Sleep Wellness Institute, from eating breakfast. Being in the sleep business and knowing the importance of adequate sleep, Ron likes to get his full eight hours a night and doesn’t have a lot of time in the morning to prepare a meal or to sit and eat, so he eats on the go. His high-protein breakfast is a smoothie, made with fruit, yogurt, a vitamin mixture and protein powder. Ron doesn’t have a regular exercise routine but stays active with outdoor sports like kayaking and fishing.
Theresa Reagan, director of strategic relationships for Scheibel Halaska, says that her high-protein breakfast of yogurt, berries and Muesli holds her well into the lunch hours. “I don’t get hungry around 9 or 10 a.m., which happened when I ate a high-carb breakfast,” said Reagan. To stay fit Theresa, combines a workout of weight lifting and aerobics six days a week.
The hormone factor
So what is the chemistry behind this high-protein/high-energy breakfast? It turns out that the experts were wrong with the first food pyramid which recommended six to 11 servings of bread, cereal, rice and pasta per day. We now know that a diet high in carbohydrates, particularly refined carbohydrates, promotes weight gain; and more immediately they affect levels of energy and alertness. These carbohydrates, often referred to as the “white foods,” include sugar, potatoes, white rice, pasta and most foods that contain white flour.
Although these carbs are packed with calories, they don’t send an “I’m full” signal to the body, telling you to stop eating. In fact, 30 minutes after a high-carb meal, the body is again saying, “I want more.” This messaging system acts out in the form of two hormones; leptin and insulin. Leptin sends signals to your body to reduce appetite, increase fat burning and reduce fat storage. When you eat a diet high in refined carbs, your body releases surges in leptin. Over time, if your body is exposed to too much leptin, it will become leptin-resistant resulting in more fat storage. Leptin-resistance also causes increased visceral fat, the fat that is stored in the abdominal area. Studies show that people with visceral fat are more susceptible to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and hypertension.
Insulin is another hormone that responds negatively to consumption of refined carbohydrates. These carbs cause spikes in insulin production which in turn cause a drop in blood sugar and resulting low energy.
Protein, on the other hand, provides a gentle, steady effect on blood sugar, avoiding the quick, steep rise in blood sugar levels. Grains, even whole grains, can have a similar effect if not balanced with protein. You may think you’re making a good choice by eating a bowl of oatmeal every morning. After all, oatmeal is high in fiber and lowers cholesterol, right? But oatmeal, without a balance of protein, generally won’t provide what you need to maintain energy and alertness. Grains break down rapidly to sugar and stimulate insulin production. Too much insulin can result in insulin-resistance. While we need fiber in our diet, a high intake of grains may not be the best way to get that fiber. The body prefers the carbohydrates found in vegetables because they require less insulin production. Vegetables have relatively few calories and meet much of our body’s requirement for fiber.
Breakfast foods to avoid:
- Most cereals
- Fruit juices (eat the fruit instead)
- Waffles and pancakes
- Bagels and toast (even whole grain organic types)
Recommended breakfast sources of protein:
- Eggs (ideally free range or organic)
- Yogurt and fresh fruit
- A fruit smoothie with whey protein
- Any kind of low-fat meat
- Smoked or fresh wild caught salmon