Jan 29, 2015
The Perfect Setup: The value of breakfast
By Susan Kundrat

For every excuse an athlete has to not eat breakfast, there is a simple and effective solution to help them get their day started right.

yogurt breakfastBreakfast is the most important meal of the day. For athletes, this statement couldn’t ring truer.

Athletes who practice in the afternoon need breakfast to set the foundation for a full day of healthy eating. Athletes who have early morning workouts need breakfast to help shift their bodies from a catabolic state to an anabolic one. And finally, for athletes in preseason two-a-days or for those who have an early morning lifting session followed by a full team practice later in the evening, breakfast is necessary to begin fueling early and often in order to maximize training.

Though these are all great reasons to eat a healthy breakfast, getting athletes motivated to wake up early enough for a meal before their day begins can be a challenge. In my experience, it’s not uncommon for more than half of a given team’s athletes to skip breakfast.

The most common excuse is lack of time. Teenagers don’t want to get out of bed any earlier than absolutely necessary, and sleep is a luxury for college athletes who study late. On top of this, while coaches and sports dietitians are preaching the importance of eating a healthy breakfast, we’re also harping on getting a good night’s sleep, so it’s easy for athletes to use that reasoning to stay in bed an extra 20 minutes.

On the flip side, once athletes make a commitment to eating a healthy breakfast on a daily basis, they reap the benefits quickly. Athletes I’ve worked with have reported having more energy throughout the day, an easier time concentrating in class, and a greater ability to get through their workouts as soon as one week after beginning a daily breakfast routine. Incorporating healthy breakfast foods into one’s diet has also proven to lower cholesterol levels and blood pressure–both important for lifelong health.

The ideal meal

Before addressing how to get athletes to follow through on eating breakfast, it’s important they know what makes a good first meal of the day. There are just as many poor food choices as great ones, and it can be easy for athletes to lose their way in the grocery store aisles.

Because breakfast plays several nutritional roles, variety is a must. High-quality carbohydrates (whole grains, cereals, fruit, 100-percent juices, yogurt, chocolate milk) provide quick muscle and brain energy. Protein (eggs, meat, milk, yogurt, nuts, nut butters, seeds, legumes) provides satiety and helps maintain and build lean muscle tissue. Fiber (whole grains, fruits, vegetables) also boosts satiety while providing other benefits like lowering lipids, maintaining regularity, and controlling blood sugar. And finally, fluids (water, milk, juice, smoothies, coffee, tea) help get athletes back into a hydrated state after a night of sleep.

The list of foods athletes should try to avoid is a long one, but in general, those that are high in fat, fried, and/or have a lot of processed sugar are at the top. That means staying away from heavily sweetened cereals, juice drinks (instead of 100-percent juice), and donuts.

Since cereal is so easy to prepare and often nutritious, it’s a great option. But athletes must be careful in the cereal aisle because not all the boxes are good choices. A simple rule of thumb to keep in mind is to look for a cereal with four or more grams of protein, five or more grams of fiber, and 12 or fewer grams of sugar per serving. Plenty of popular cereals fit into this category, including Kellogg’s Special K Protein Plus, Quaker Oatmeal Squares, Kashi Heart to Heart, Fiber One Honey Clusters, Post Grape-Nuts Trail Mix Crunch, and Kellogg’s Frosted Mini-Wheats.

Katie McCammon, a graduate student at Texas A&M University who is certified by the American Culinary Federation, has worked with athletes to maximize their breakfast choices. She encourages them to include a source of protein, fiber, and a whole fruit at each breakfast meal to get a quick energy boost while at the same time taking in some slower burning fuel.

Although many athletes may think primarily of carbohydrates like bagels, cereal, toast, and fruit or juice for breakfast, I encourage them to also take in at least 20 to 30 grams of protein in the morning. Including protein is critical for maintaining lean body mass, and some studies have found that when included at breakfast, protein may increase total energy expenditure during the day. Take a look at these examples of breakfast meals that each include at least 20 grams of protein:

  • Two slices of whole wheat toast with two tablespoons of peanut butter, one banana, one container of light yogurt, and one cup of one-percent chocolate milk.
  • 1 cup of Greek vanilla yogurt with three tablespoons of slivered almonds, a quarter-cup of low-fat granola, and a half-cup of fresh berries or half of a peach mixed in.
  • A two-egg omelet with one ounce of low-fat cheese and one ounce of chopped ham wrapped in a medium-sized whole grain tortilla shell, along with one cup of 100-percent grapefruit juice.
  • A smoothie made of one cup of Greek yogurt, a half-cup of frozen cherries, and a half-cup of juice, along with a mini whole wheat bagel topped with a slice of cheese or peanut butter.

Meeting breakfast challenges

As mentioned earlier, athletes can easily justify to themselves why skipping breakfast is okay. But each excuse can be countered with some constructive advice. Let’s take a closer look at ways to combat typical breakfast obstacles.

I don’t have enough time.” When athletes are rushed before class, or have to get up extra early for a morning workout, eating breakfast can feel like one more thing on their to-do list. Plus, many athletes need to get into the athletic training room before workouts for treatment, which cuts into valuable sleep time even more. But there are ways to combat these challenges:

Pack breakfast the night before. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, bananas, and juice boxes work well. I encourage athletes to purchase an insulated lunch bag so they can fill it the night before, store it in the fridge, and throw it in their backpack on the way out the door.

Make a week’s worth of breakfast meals over the weekend. Athletes can package individual servings of trail mix in baggies, line up 100-percent juice bottles and pre-poured bottles of chocolate milk in the fridge, and have containers of fresh grapes, baby carrots, and yogurt ready to go. Athletes can also cook homemade breakfast sandwiches ahead of time. Just pull one out of the freezer and throw it in the microwave for 60 seconds.

Eat leftovers. Pizza, pasta, or even takeout Chinese food are all great breakfast options. Eat a plate cold or warmed up in the microwave along with a high-quality liquid like 100-percent juice or milk, and the meal is complete.

Try a blend-and-go breakfast. It takes about 60 seconds to blend yogurt, a cup of frozen berries, a cup of orange juice, and a banana with ice. Or if an athlete doesn’t have a blender, they can mix a scoop of whey protein powder with one cup of water, milk, or juice.

Eat something quick on the way out the door, and pack another item for a little while later. This could be a granola bar or sports bar eaten on the way to class or the weight room, and a second one an hour later.

I’m not hungry.” It’s true that many people–including athletes–just don’t feel hungry in the morning, especially if they aren’t in the habit of eating first thing. But I’ve found that once athletes do start eating breakfast, their bodies get used to the habit and begin craving food when they wake up. It’s important for athletes to know that they may need to “train” their bodies to handle breakfast if it’s not something they are used to. I suggest starting by adding a miniature breakfast “snack” 15 to 30 minutes after waking up. This could be a small bowl of cereal and milk, a piece of peanut butter toast and apple juice, a granola bar, fruit, or a few graham crackers with a glass of chocolate milk. Eventually, the athlete’s body will get used to morning fuel and they can work up to eating a bigger breakfast.

  » ALSO SEE: Properly fueling your football players

Another option for the athlete who says they aren’t hungry in the morning is to start by drinking their breakfast. Using pre-made shakes or instant mixes with chocolate milk or 100-percent juice work well. And as they get used to the routine, the athlete can add in solid foods. An added bonus to a liquid breakfast is that people generally wake up dehydrated, so it allows for re-hydration while consuming some energy.

I’m afraid I’ll get sick.” I’ve heard from some athletes who regularly have morning workouts that they skip breakfast for fear of losing it during a hard conditioning session. In this case, it’s possible the athlete is eating too much or too close to their scheduled workout time.

If possible, encourage the athlete to get up 10 to 15 minutes earlier than usual so they can digest a small breakfast. Start with water or an easily digestible juice like apple juice and a small grain such as a packet of oatmeal, half a bagel, a granola bar, or a small bowl of dry cereal. A liquid meal like a smoothie or chocolate milk is definitely worth a try, and yogurt is a great choice as well since it is so quickly changed to liquid form in the body. The athlete can then consider adding more fuel during their workout.

Another option for this athlete is to eat more before bed. Adding an extra snack close to bedtime can help boost energy stores in the morning. Athletes can think of this food as a pre-breakfast snack to help them start off the following day with more fuel on board.

I’ve also heard some athletes say they tend to feel queasy upon rising extra early in the morning. I suggest these athletes drink a glass of water first, then after a few minutes try something easily digestible like crackers, dry toast, or dry cereal. Once their stomach is settled, the athlete can boost their breakfast with some more hearty foods. This is a perfect example of how a breakfast packed the night before can be a big help.

I also encourage athletes to move around before eating in an attempt to decrease any nauseous feelings. Some feel fine after a shower, or after walking to class or the weight room. Even if they eat an hour after getting up, the athlete still gets the benefit of early morning fuel.

I’m trying to lose weight.” Like many people, athletes may have the misconception that skipping meals will help them shed pounds. However, numerous studies have found that breakfast eaters tend to maintain healthier weights, while those who skip breakfast are at greater risk for weight gain.

Breakfast doesn’t have to be heavy on the calories. Heidi Skolnik, MS, CDN, FACSM, co-author of Nutrient Timing for Peak Performance, recommends fast, balanced, lean breakfasts that will minimize hunger such as a slice of whole grain toast with peanut butter, a glass of skim milk and a banana, or a whole grain waffle with low-fat cottage cheese and fresh berries.

I’ve also heard many athletes say they feel like they eat all day long if they eat breakfast in the morning, so they just skip it. But it’s important for athletes to know that eating all day is a good thing–as long as the foods they’re consuming are primarily healthy.

Several studies have documented the benefits of spreading calories out over the course of the day instead of eating two or three larger meals with lots of time in between them. In addition to providing more even energy levels, “grazing” during the day fuels lean body mass better and helps decrease body fat by preventing overeating.

It’s also worth noting that the feeling of being hungry all day may be more perception than reality. Recently published research that studied adolescents who regularly skipped breakfast found that when they ate high-protein breakfasts, they had a reduction in appetite and overall food intake during the day.

Educate athletes on their total energy and protein needs, and show them how to break down their projected total food intake into five or six small meals or snacks during the day, including breakfast. Sample meal planning can really help athletes see that they can meet their goal of getting leaner while eating several times a day.

Although it is challenging to try and find ways to make it easier for athletes to eat breakfast, there’s ample evidence that doing so can make a good athlete even better. Properly fueled athletes have more energy all day long, better concentration skills, and superior on-field performances–and it all starts with breakfast.

Currently, the NCAA allows Division I member schools to provide their teams with one training table meal per day. Because of the logistics of student-athletes’ daily schedules, dinner is usually the easiest choice for this meal. However, many in the sports dietitian community believe student-athletes would benefit greatly from a second training table meal per day: breakfast.

The myriad of concrete benefits athletes get from consuming a healthy daily breakfast would no doubt result in a significant positive effect on their health and performance. “Training table meals function as learning labs for progressive nutrition programs, where the menu, organization, and food quality reinforce the sports dietitian’s educational messages,” says Amy Bragg, RD, CSSD, LD, Director of Performance Nutrition at the University of Alabama and Vice President of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association.

Bragg also notes that if an additional team meal were allowed, there would be much less reliance on sports supplements like shakes, bars, and drinks. Instead, the focus would be on whole foods, which offer benefits that supplements do not.

For now, it may work for some teams to make breakfast part of their training plan. Coaches and athletic trainers can encourage athletes to meet for breakfast as a team, or make a “breakfast pact” in which all players agree to eat a solid breakfast every day, whether it be in the dining hall, at home, or on the way to class or a workout.

Susan Kundrat, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, is the Sports Dietitian at the University of Illinois and co-founder of RK Team Nutrition. She is editor of The Nutrition Edge and author of 101 Sports Nutrition Tips, and is currently writing her second sports nutrition book. 

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