Breakfast for athletes

Breakfast for athletes

I have recently done a number of nutrition consultations for athletes ranging from aspiring young athletes to some of the most high profile professional athletes in the UK and there is one common theme that seems to ring true for all these athletes and that is poor choices for breakfast. The other meals these athletes choose through the day are usually quite good and the snacks they choose could be better at times but breakfasts are almost always the worst meal of the day. It’s not surprising when we are confronted with powerful marketing campaigns that we should eat cereal for breakfast, that cereals are healthy foods and that we need to eat them because they are good for our heart or a healthy weight loss food. This is mostly nonsense of course as most if not all breakfast cereals are actually junk foods. A 30g bowl of breakfast cereal can contain up to 11g of sugar for example.

Eating breakfast is paramount for the general public as well as athletes. A study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition (2010) demonstrated that of 4,326 UK secondary school children 32 percent did not eat breakfast. Those children who did not eat breakfast were more likely to be overweight and obese. Weight control and body composition can be a problem for athletes, especially athletes that need to compete in weight classes.

The content of a healthy breakfast is debatable with the government, mass media and many sporting bodies promoting junk foods as healthy “sports nutrition”. The Nutrition for Football Conference held at FIFA House in Zurich from September 2005 included common breakfast foods such as cereal with milk, flavoured yoghurt and fruit smoothies in its list of nutrient-rich carbohydrate foods. The Australian institute of Sport also recommends foods such as crumpets with jam or honey, flavoured milk, baked beans on toast, breakfast cereal with milk or fruit salad with fruit flavoured yoghurt as healthy pre training breakfasts providing fuel.
These foods are indeed carbohydrate rich, however what seems to be completely missed is that these foods are moderate to high glycemic load (GL), high in processed sugar, contain gluten, dairy and other common food intolerances and are generally poor providers of essential fats, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals.

Let’s examine some research on breakfast content. Scientists at the University of Missouri used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain to identify whether breakfast consumption and breakfast content would alter the neural activity in brain regions that control appetite and satiety. The researchers found that breakfast consumption led to better outcomes in terms of appetite control and food satiety compared to skipping breakfast and that higher protein breakfasts were better than a normal cereal and milk based breakfast. In real terms this means people are less likely to consume excess calories and sugary snacks in between meals and make better food choices throughout the day. These data suggest that increased dietary protein at breakfast might be a beneficial strategy to manage appetite and satiety in overweight teen girls at least and there is no evidence to suggest that this should not apply to males and athletes.

A study published in Diabetes Care examined the value of eating 75g of nuts (a food rich in healthy fats, proteins vitamins and minerals) instead of a calorie equivalent muffin (muffins are often touted as a good breakfast or pre training carbohydrate based food). A total of 117 type 2 diabetic subjects were randomised to one of three treatments for 3 months. One group received 75g of nuts, another group received a protein-fortified muffin, and the third group received half a serving of nuts with half a serving of muffin. The results showed that the group eating nuts had significant improvements in blood sugar management and serum lipids compared to the muffin and half nuts / half muffin group. This highlights the importance of sound nutrition and eating healthy protein and fats as a priority over eating processed “sports nutrition” foods for optimum nutrition.

More evidence exists that high protein meals (including breakfast) improved appetite and satiety. Research published in the journal Obesity demonstrated that men eating a higher protein diet (25% of total calories) had less preoccupation with thoughts of food, and a decrease in late-night eating compared to men eating a normal protein diet (14% of total calories).

There is an argument that using protein shakes can be useful as a meal replacement or breakfast substitute and indeed research does suggest that whey protein shakes are better for weight management compared to using soy protein or carbohydrate shakes (Baer, et al 2011). However, as demonstrated in the British Journal of Nutrition in 2011 eating a protein rich (38% of total energy) solid meal was better for appetite control and satiety when compared to a protein rich (38% of total energy) liquid meal.

It makes sense then to consider what Jonny Bowden calls a human’s “factory specified food”, it certainly isn’t highly processed grains loaded with sugar and salt. I believe these junk foods are contributing (not the sole cause) to our epidemic of obesity, diabetes, insulin resistance and other chronic disease. What’s the answer? What is our “factory specified food”?
Now, as I have assaulted all breakfast cereals as junk food (just read the label – they are full of sugar and salt and sometimes covered in chocolate – how could they not be junk food) I thought I would redeem myself by suggesting there are 2 cereals that I would be comfortable with people eating infrequently (this means once or twice a week).

These are porridge and muesli.

As always there are a couple of caveats to this rule. Both of these cereals contain oats, and oats contain gluten nowadays due to cross contamination, so if you are sensitive to gluten – don’t eat oats or make sue you eat certified gluten free oats. Instead you could look for a quinoa or amaranth based muesli that you can find in the health food store or simply make your own porridge from a mix of ground rice, quinoa or flax meal. If you are going to cook porridge add a little butter or coconut oil, flax seeds, slivered almonds and some berries to the mix. If you like it sweet add a teaspoon of honey or cinnamon.

Also look for brands of muesli that are low in sugar and high in nuts, seeds and coconut slivers and don’t be afraid to add more nuts and seeds to the mix.

Don’t use soy milk in either of these foods either. There are mixed opinions on soy, and I believe that traditional fermented soy eaten in moderation is fine, however highly processed soy products such as soy milk, soy cheese and soy yoghurt are also junk foods. If you don’t have problems with dairy just use whole or semi skimmed milk, otherwise cook porridge with water and use some quinoa or almond milk on the muesli (I know these milks are processed too, but they are not oestrogenic like soy milk).

And don’t put juice on your cereals – that is moronic. Why would you pour sugar loaded juice all over sugar loaded grains?

So if cereals are junk food (except porridge and muesli) you might be wondering what I do think is healthy to eat for breakfast. Here are my thoughts on a couple of conventional breakfast foods.

Eggs are a great breakfast food. Forget what you have heard about eggs being bad for your cholesterol or that the yolk bad for you as it is full of fat – this is complete nonsense! Eggs are a great source of protein, essential fats, B vitamins, vitamin D and vitamin A. Eat them anyway you like except fried. Have scrambled, poached or boiled eggs on gluten free wholegrain toast or try an omelette with spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes. Just don’t eat eggs every day; 2-3 times a week is fine.

Plain whole Greek style yoghurt (such as Yeo Valley or Rachel’s Organic) with mixed berries or sliced apple and ground seeds or toasted nuts is another great breakfast. Again this will provide you with some protein, fats and carbohydrates, the added berries and fruit provide fibre and antioxidants and the nuts or seeds provide more vitamins and minerals. Do not eat low fat or fruit yoghurts, these products are generally full of sugar!!!.

I also think there is nothing wrong with having a healthy “grill up” once a week, find some good quality organic sausages and some bacon and eat it with poached eggs, steamed mushrooms and grilled tomatoes – yum!

Now I am going to reveal what I eat for breakfast almost every day. Bar the once a week healthy grill up or berries and yoghurt with some ground flax seeds, cinnamon and xylitol (YUM) I eat Meat and Nuts for breakfast.

This natural unprocessed food is what we are designed to eat (Jonny Bowden’s “factory specified food”), not processed grains and a splash of dairy. I can hear you going “yuk” but just think about it. Go back a few thousand years and what do you think people would have eaten for breakfast.

Now we can’t be 100% sure as we weren’t there and don’t really have any records from that time (apart from fossil remains and Palaeolithic bone remains – which by the way Palaeontologists such as Loren Cordain have good data suggesting the types of foods our ancestors ate), but there were certainly no processed grains, and people would probably have eaten what they had hunted and gathered the day before. They may have eaten the remains of hunted rabbit, bore or deer; they may have eaten some foraged berries or nuts or other plants, but not a bowel of Cheerio’s!

Now it doesn’t really matter what meat you want to eat, and when I say meat I mean to encompass meat, fish, seafood and poultry and simply eat a serving that will satisfy your appetite along with some raw unsalted nuts such as cashews, almonds, walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts or even Brazil nuts. You could also eat some berries or other low GL fruit such as apple or pear. This type of breakfast will certainly fill you up as you will get a healthy serving of protein, essential fats, vitamins and minerals and the fruit will give you some added fibre.

I can hear the orthodox medical and nutritional mainstream shouting that this will raise cholesterol etc etc… Well, if you eat just as much seafood and fish as you do meat (which will provide omega 3 fats that are known to help improve cholesterol) and combine this with nuts that are full of beta sitosterols that again raise good HDL: and lower bad LDL cholesterol you should have no problems at all with this. Now there are always exceptions to the rule so just pay attention to your latest blood test results you get from the doctor, but in most cases blood markers for CVD and insulin resistance should improve.
It’s important that you don’t just eat the same type of meat every day. If you at beef everyday then that might cause you a problem, but if you rotate your foods sensibly and have eggs a couple times a week and perhaps muesli or porridge once or twice a week you’ll be providing a host of different nutrients to your body and your immune system will not build up a reaction to any one food.

Here is an example:

Day 1: Salmon fillet, handful of almonds and blueberries
Day 2: 3 eggs spinach and tomato omelette
Day 3: Homemade beef patty with pecans and raspberries
Day 4: Chicken strips with walnuts and sliced apple
Day 5: Turkey escallops, handful of cashews
Day 6: Muesli and Greek Yoghurt
Day 7: Grill up


Jenkins DJ, Kendall CW, Banach MS, Srichaikul K, Vidgen E, Mitchell S, Parker T, Nishi S, Bashyam B, de Souza R, Ireland C, Josse RG. Nuts as a replacement for carbohydrates in the diabetic diet. Diabetes Care. 2011 Aug;34(8):1706-11. Epub 2011 Jun 29.

Leidy HJ, Tang M, Armstrong CL, Martin CB, Campbell WW. The effects of consuming frequent, higher protein meals on appetite and satiety during weight loss in overweight/obese men. Obesity (Silver Spring). 2011 Apr;19(4):818-24. Epub 2010 Sep 16.

Leidy, H. J., Lepping, R. J., Savage, C. R., & Harris, C. T. (2011 May). Neural responses to visual food stimuli after a normal vs. higher protein breakfast in breakfast-skipping teens: A pilot fMRI study. Obesity. doi:10.1038/oby.2011.108.

Leidy HJ, Bales-Voelker LI, Harris CT. A protein-rich beverage consumed as a breakfast meal leads to weaker appetitive and dietary responses v. a protein-rich solid breakfast meal in adolescents. Br J Nutr. 2011 Jul;106(1):37-41. Epub 2011 Feb 15.

G R H Sandercock, C Voss and L Dye (2010) Associations between habitual school- day breakfast consumption, body mass index, physical activity and cardiorespiratory fitness in English schoolchildren. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 64, 1086- 1092 (October 2010) | doi:10.1038/ejcn.2010.145

F-MARC Nutrition for Football Based on an International Consensus Conference held at FIFA House in Zurich A practical guide to eating and drinking for health and performance September 2005

Baer DJ, et al. Whey protein but not soy protein supplementation alters body weight and composition in free-living overweight and obese adults. J Nutr. 2011; 141(8):1489-94

Greene, P. Willett, W. Devecis, J. and Skaf, A. (2003). Pilot 12-week feeding weight- loss comparisons: low-fat vs low-carbohydrate (ketogenic) diets. Obesity Research. 11(suppl): A23.

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