Making Breakfast Count

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Hello from Chicago, where I’m attending the annual meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists. It’s an interesting gathering of food scientists from academia, industry and government who think about what we eat, how we eat and why we aren’t eating better. Over the next several days, I’ll be brining you some news from the conference on talks that I found interesting. Should be a fun meeting.

Not being a big breakfast person – I know, it’s the most important meal of the day, but who has time? – I decided to start off with a session on protein, in which the speakers argued that Americans generally don’t eat enough protein for breakfast. That might sound weird, given that we associate breakfast with foods like eggs and bacon and milk. But the truth of the matter is that most of us don’t eat that way every morning (maybe just on the weekends). The average American, Douglas Paddon-Jones of the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston told the room, scarfs down a quick carbohydrate-heavy breakfast of a bagel or muffin or cereal, which averages out to about 10g of protein. That’s a worrying trend, he argued, because protein is critical for maintaining muscle mass. As the population ages, loss of muscle mass could become a trigger for expensive healthcare costs linked to falls, fractures and long term disability. Paddon-Jones presented some interesting new data from his lab on the effect of eating protein on muscle-building in both young and  elderly study subjects. He reported that contrary to conventional wisdom, which holds that the elderly tend to lose their ability to make muscle from the protein they eat, rates of muscle building remains the same throughout life – as little as 4 oz of lean beef or chicken (which contains about 30g of protein) can boost muscle bulk by 50%.

He did find a difference, however, among the young and elderly volunteers when they lowered the amount of protein they ate – when younger subjects halved their intake to 15g, they also halved their muscle-building, while the elderly experienced a greater than 50% drop-off.

What I found particularly interesting was what Paddon-Jones said next – when a similar group was studied after consuming 12 oz of lean beef or chicken – a three-fold boost in protein – their ability to make muscle did not increase by much at all. In fact, it stayed pretty much the same. More protein, it turns out, doesn’t necessarily lead to more muscle. It’s all a matter of when you consume the protein and how you consume it – higher quality sources such as eggs and dairy appear to be more efficient than vegetable sources such as soy.

Based on that data, and taking into account the current US dietary guidelines, which suggest that the average adult consume about 90g of protein daily, Paddon-Jones argued that we should be distributing our protein consumption more evenly throughout the day. Most of us start out with the 10g of protein for breakfast, pick up another 15g at lunch, and backload our dinners with 25g to 30g. Instead, he argued, we should spread out our intake into three equal portions – about 30g with each meal, to maximize our ability to maintain muscle and keep our skeletal system strong. 30g, 3 times a day – it’s not hard to remember, and it seems reasonable enough. And given the emerging data, it’s probably worth finding the time each morning to add an egg or more yogurt to the breakfast table.