Athletes: Why Breakfast is So Important

No matter what time of the day you work out, a balanced breakfast gives your body energy and nutrients it needs.

No matter what time of the day you work out, a balanced breakfast gives your body energy and nutrients it needs.

Athletes who don’t eat in the morning have all kinds of excuses – no time, no appetite and a dislike of breakfast foods are pretty common ones.

But with the many benefits that a balanced breakfast offers, especially to athletes, it’s a meal that shouldn’t be so casually dismissed.

How a balanced breakfast supports activity

Your carbohydrate stores are low in the morning because your body has tapped into them overnight. This stored energy is used to fuel your basic body functions and to help your body repair itself while you sleep. When you start your activities the next day, your working muscles rely on carbohydrates for energy, and your brain depends on a steady supply, too. Since carbohydrates are your body’s preferred source of energy, it’s important to replenish them.

Protein serves many functions in the body, and athletes know how important protein is in supporting muscle recovery. For optimal muscle repair and growth, it’s best to consume protein at regular intervals throughout the day, which is why it’s important that the morning meal provides some protein. Protein also helps make meals more satisfying.

Small amounts of healthy fats are important, too. Not only does fat serve as an energy source, certain fatty acids are essential – which means your body can’t make them – so they need to come from your diet. Your body uses these essential fatty acids to make, among other things, hormones that play a role in growth, development and recovery.

Typical healthy breakfast foods can supply your body with the nutrients it needs to support activity. A whole-grain fortified cereal with milk and fruit, for example, supplies plenty of carbohydrates for fuel, B vitamins that help convert food into energy, important minerals – like calcium to support bone health and muscle contraction – and protein to support muscle.

Why athletes shouldn’t skip breakfast

Without any food coming in during the night, your blood sugar levels naturally decline as you sleep. As this happens, your body produces cortisol – a hormone that’s released by your adrenal glands that are located on top of your kidneys.

One of the functions of cortisol is to help keep blood sugar levels from falling too far. Cortisol does this by stimulating the breakdown of body proteins (including those found in your muscles) into their amino acid building blocks, because amino acids can be converted into glucose to bring blood sugar levels back up. It’s a natural process, and it’s your body’s way of ensuring you have energy when you need it. But it’s important to eat a balanced meal soon after waking to bring your blood sugar levels back up. This can help offset this cortisol response and help protect your muscles.

When you skip breakfast, it can affect how you feel and perform for the whole day. If you usually exercise in the morning, you may not have enough energy to get through your workout if you haven’t eaten. If you work out in the afternoon, skipping breakfast might lead to a larger-than-necessary lunch – and that uncomfortable feeling you get when you exercise with a very full stomach. Another common problem with skipping breakfast is that it’s easy to convince yourself that you can eat larger meals the rest of the day, but that can lead to a vicious cycle. If you wind up eating a huge dinner, you may not be hungry the next morning, and so you skip breakfast, and the cycle continues.

What to eat in the morning

The size of your breakfast is determined, in part, by how soon you’ll be exercising. If you’re headed out within an hour or two of eating, you may not want as much, but you should try to get something easy to digest in your system like a banana, a small serving of yogurt or half a bagel. If you have more time, then you can have a regular breakfast.

 A balanced breakfast contains a good amount of carbohydrates from foods like fruits and grains, and protein from eggs, lean meats, dairy products, protein powders, nut butters or tofu. A bit of healthy fat from nuts, seeds, oils or avocado will help your meal stick with you. A protein shake is great for those who say they don’t have much time, and last night’s leftovers might work well for those who don’t like breakfast foods. If you don’t have much of an appetite in the morning, try breaking your breakfast meal up into two smaller meals – have half in the morning, and the other half as a mid-morning snack.

Here are some balanced breakfast ideas:

  • Oatmeal topped with raisins and nuts; cook oats in milk instead of water, or stir in some yogurt or protein powder for a protein boost
  • Tofu scramble with vegetables
  • Protein shake made with milk, berries and chia seeds
  • Nut butter on whole grain bread with fresh fruit
  • Yogurt topped with fruit and flaxseeds
  • Cottage cheese topped with chopped vegetables and cashews
  • Veggie omelet with low-fat cheese and whole grain toast
  • Wrap made with a whole wheat tortilla, sliced turkey or hard boiled eggs, veggies and avocado

Written by Susan Bowerman, M.S., RD, CSSD, CSOWM, FAND – Senior Director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training

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