Build a Better Breakfast for Optimal Performance

By Shawn Hueglin and Jennifer Ho | Feb. 04, 2019, 12 a.m. (ET)

A Better Breakfast

Making time for a morning meal is the first step toward boosting brain and muscle performance throughout the day.

Breakfast is often said to be the most important meal of the day because it’s the first opportunity to refuel your body after an overnight fast. Not only does it replenish nutrients in the body, it also sets the course for meal timing and raises energy levels for the rest of the day. A balanced breakfast rich in carbohydrates and proteins regulates appetite and helps you feel satisfied, putting you on track to reach your fueling and nutrition goals.

For an athlete, eating breakfast can enhance cognitive function and volleyball performance on the court.

Related: Eating After a Game or Practice | What to Pack in Your Tournament Cooler | Protein and Young Athletes

Build a better breakfast

Whether you are going to work, school or training, a nutritious breakfast can be built around your needs for the day. Factors that may affect the amount and type of food in your meal include:

  • Time of the next meal
  • Size and time of dinner the previous night
  • Intensity and duration of training session or game that day
  • Available time in the morning
  • Personal nutrition-related goals

So, how do you build a better breakfast?

Start by determining how much time you have in the morning. Between when you wake up and when you leave for school or practice, it’s crucial to eat some food, even if you are short on time. Preparing meals and snacks the night before can be invaluable for saving time in the morning. If time is a constraint, have a small breakfast and pack snacks. When you have more time, eat a larger, more filling breakfast.

If you have less than two hours before training, consider eating a small breakfast with easy-to-digest carbohydrates, low fat and lean protein. Choose a larger breakfast rich in carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats if you have more than two hours.

On days with multiple training sessions, eating a larger breakfast may be a strategy to consume enough calories to support energy expenditure throughout the day. For early morning training sessions, consuming a light breakfast or liquid meal beforehand and a second breakfast afterward may be beneficial.

Eating breakfast not only impacts energy levels but also body composition and weight management. A filling breakfast will curb hunger hormones and control appetite. When the body’s carbohydrate stores become depleted overnight, the body taps into muscle and fat stores for energy. Replenishing carbohydrate stores in the morning allows the body to rely on glycogen as the primary fuel and enables the body to maintain muscle.

Eating a sufficient amount of protein throughout the day is equally as important for the body to maintain muscle. The best way to achieve optimal protein throughout the day is in several meals and snacks rather than during one or two large meals. For some examples of breakfasts rich in carbohydrate and protein, see the list below.

Breakfast matters

Skipping breakfast or having too small of a meal leads to a day of lower energy levels and often eating more than needed later in the day. If you have a habit of eating little to no breakfast, start gradually by incorporating something into breakfast each day.

For example, begin with a piece of toast with nut butter, then add a piece of fruit or a glass of milk. Over time, eating a complete breakfast will become easier and more routine.

Examples of breakfasts rich in carbs and proteins

  • 1-2 slices of whole wheat toast, 1-2 eggs, 1-2 ounces turkey, 1 cup berries
  • ¼ - ½ cup old fashioned oats, 1-2< tablespoons peanut butter, 1 banana, ¼ - ½ cup Greek yogurt
  • Smoothie – 1-1 ½ cup vanilla soy milk, 1½ cup frozen strawberries, 1 banana, ½ cup vanilla Greek yogurt, 1 teaspoon ground flax, 1 cup spinach
  • Breakfast burrito – 2-3 scrambled eggs, 1 cup spinach, ½ cup mushrooms, 2 tablespoons salsa, ¼ cup shredded cheese, 1 whole wheat tortilla (can substitute tofu for eggs)
  • 2-3 whole grain pancakes, 1-2 table= spoon almond butter, 1 cup blueberries, 1-2 hard-boiled eggs, 1 cup milk
  • 1-2 slices sunflower seed bread, ½ mashed avocado, 2 sliced roma tomatoes, ½ -1 cup cottage cheese

Author Shawn Hueglin, PhD, RD, CSSD is a sport dietitian with the United States Olympic Committee.