Protein or Carbs first thing in the morning?

26 Jan 2010

Protein or Carbs first thing in the morning?

Excellent question. Many people wonder what they should eat first thing in the morning, or even if they should eat breakfast at all (yes, you should). Before thinking about eating, comes the sleep. The research is clear that you should be getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night, which will help immensely in achieving your fitness and healthy living goals1 2 3. During these 7-8 hours you are fasting.

Even though you are sound asleep and dreaming of slaying the dragon and saving the princess, your body is hard at work repairing itself and getting ready for the next day. This requires energy. Since your intake would be nil overnight, the energy must come from energy stores within your body. The possibilities are either body fat or glycogen (muscle can also be broken down and used for energy, but this is out of the scope of this particular answer).

Glycogen is basically a long string of glucose (sugar) molecules chained together. It is stored in muscle and hepatic (liver) tissue. Interestingly, liver stores can be used to replenish muscle glycogen, but muscle glycogen cannot be used to replenish liver stores. During sleep, you will probably use some body fat and some glycogen to fuel your body’s recovery process.

Now, to what you should eat in the morning. Since your glycogen level will be very low after this fast, it would be a great idea to replenish it. The way to do this is by eating some carbohydrates. Try selecting some low glycemic, whole grains rather than bleached carbohydrates.

Examples of such include oatmeal and whole grain breads. These will penetrate your blood stream a little slower and not cause a spike in insulin. Part of a well balanced breakfast should also include some protein and some fat. It is very important to consume breakfast every day. Just like sleep, it will be very difficult to improve health and fitness much without consuming breakfast4.

The only exception to this may be if you exercise very intensely soon after awakening. In this case, it would still be advisable to eat some type of carbohydrate and protein. But, depending on what your stomach can handle during heavy exercise, you may feel better without any fat in the morning. However, it is important to eat something, especially if you are trying to gain muscle. If you try to build muscle after a night long fast, you will largely be wasting your time.

One last quick note is that some people complain that they are just not hungry upon waking up. This is usually a sign of overeating at dinner time/before going to sleep. Try decreasing your late night food consumption and see if this makes a difference.

  • Adámková V, Hubácek JA, Lánská V, Vrablík M, Králová Lesná I, Suchánek P, Zimmelová P, Veleminský M. (2009) Association between duration of the sleep and body weight. Physiol Res. 58 Suppl 1:S27-31.
  • Ohlmann KK, O'Sullivan MI. (2009) The costs of short sleep. AAOHN J. 57(9):381-5. Review.
  • Oliver SJ, Costa RJ, Laing SJ, Bilzon JL, Walsh NP. (2009) One night of sleep deprivation decreases treadmill endurance performance. Eur J Appl Physiol. 107(2):155-61. Epub Jun 20.
  • Patro B, Szajewska H. (2010) Meal patterns and childhood obesity. Curr Opin Clin Nutr Metab Care. Jan 13. [Epub ahead of print]