3 Keys to Building Healthy Breakfasts for Athletes
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Starting the day with a healthy breakfast is an important part of an athlete’s sports nutrition game plan. Breakfast provides the energy athletes need to perform at their best on the court and in the classroom all morning long. Let’s look at three key points for building healthy breakfasts for athletes.
Key 1: Plan Ahead
Make sure to plan your breakfast ahead of time so that a lack of time is not an excuse to skip your morning meal. Consider meal prepping your breakfast on the weekends so that when you are in a hurry, on a busy weekday morning, you have healthy breakfasts ready to go.
When planning your breakfasts for the week, don’t forget about the importance of eating a healthy breakfast on the weekends as well. Don’t fall into the temptation of sleeping in on the weekends and skipping breakfast. If you are serious about your sports nutrition game plan, don’t miss an opportunity to start your day with breakfast.
Key 2: Select Nutrients to Support Healthy Breakfasts for Athletes
When planning what to include in your breakfast, the meal should focus on a foundation of carbohydrates, contain moderate amounts of lean protein, and be balanced out with healthy fats.
Carbohydrate-rich choices should be the foundation of your breakfast. Carbohydrates provide the energy the body needs to perform at its best. You can get carbohydrates in your diet from a variety of food groups, including:
- Starchy Vegetables
Selecting whole grain carbohydrates, such as oatmeal, whole wheat bread, bagels, and tortillas, and whole grain breakfast cereal, is a great way to add fiber, vitamins, and minerals to your breakfast. Dave’s Killer Bread® has a variety of whole grain breads, bagels, and English muffins that can make a nutritious addition to your morning meal.
Fruit is an excellent carbohydrate choice for athletes. In addition to carbohydrates, fruit contains fiber, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and antioxidants. Keep fresh fruit on hand to have as a topping for pancakes, stir into your breakfast cereal, or have as a side with your meal. You can also enjoy a glass of 100% fruit juice with your meal to increase the carbohydrate, vitamin, and mineral content of your breakfast.
Frozen fruit is flash-frozen at the peak of ripeness. Thus, it retains a similar nutrient content to fresh fruit. Keep frozen fruit available for fruit smoothies, as an ingredient for overnight oats, or to add to a fruit and yogurt parfait.
Dried fruit is another easy way to boost your carbohydrate, fiber, vitamin, and mineral intake. Dried fruit, such as raisins, cranberries, pineapple, and mango, makes a great addition to oatmeal and breakfast cereals.
Although you may not traditionally think of eating vegetables at breakfast, starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, are a great carbohydrate option. Adding diced potatoes to your scrambled eggs or roasting some potatoes to enjoy as a side dish are easy ways to boost the carbohydrate content of your meal.
Including dairy with your breakfast, such as milk, yogurt, and cheese, is an easy way to add both carbohydrates and protein to your meal. In addition, dairy items contain calcium and many are fortified with Vitamin D, both of which are important for bone health.
To get the most benefit from your protein intake, athletes are encouraged to consume protein throughout the day with meals and snacks1. In general, athletes tend do a great job with protein intake at lunch and dinner, but protein intake at breakfast is often lacking. Therefore, adding protein at breakfast is a strategy I often work on with athletes.
Protein recommendations for athletes are based upon body weight. Athletes are encouraged to consume ~0.25-0.3 grams of protein per kg of body weight with meals and snacks spaced evenly throughout the day. For a 175-pound athlete this would equal ~20-24 grams of protein.
Greek yogurt is a great way to add protein to your breakfast. A one cup serving of Greek yogurt contains ~21 grams of protein, while regular yogurt has ~7 grams of protein. Consider making a parfait with Greek yogurt, frozen berries, and whole grain breakfast cereal for a nutritious start to your day.
Eggs are an easy way to add protein to your breakfast. One large egg contains 6 grams of protein. The majority of the protein in the egg comes from the egg white (4 grams), however, the yolk is rich in vitamins and minerals. Eggs contain choline, important for cognitive function, as well as selenium, riboflavin, Vitamin K, and antioxidants1, thus they make a nutritious addition to your morning meal.
If you enjoy breakfast sausage, consider trying turkey breakfast sausage. A 2.5-oz serving of turkey sausage contains ~13 grams of protein (depending on the brand) and 2.5 grams of saturated fat. When you compare this to pork sausage, which contains ~8 grams of protein and 9 grams of saturated fat, you can see turkey sausage is a leaner protein option.
Ultra-filtered milk, such as Fairlife® or H‑E‑B MooTopia®, are filtered to remove the lactose and to concentrate both the protein and calcium content of the beverage. A cup of ultra-filtered milk provides ~13 grams of protein compared to 8 grams in a cup of regular milk. Adding ultra-filtered milk to your breakfast cereal, smoothie, or as a drink with your meal are great ways to boost the protein content of your breakfast.
Cheese is a convenient way to add protein to your breakfast. A 1-oz serving of cheese contains ~7 grams of protein. Try adding cheese to your scrambled eggs, breakfast sandwich, or as a topping on a breakfast burrito for added protein and flavor.
Cottage cheese is an excellent source of protein, providing ~28 grams of protein per 1 cup serving. Top your cottage cheese with fruit, such as pineapple, peaches, berries, or diced apples. Stirring in seeds or nuts can be another great way to boost the nutrient content of your cottage cheese.
If you are not a fan of the texture of cottage cheese, you can blend it into your smoothie. It will make the smoothie extra creamy without altering the flavor. You can also whisk cottage cheese into your eggs before you scramble them to add protein and a soft, creamy texture.
High Protein Pancakes and Waffles
High protein pancake and waffle mixes, such as Kodiak Cakes® and Krusteaz®, can make a delicious addition to your breakfast. If you are limited in time on weekday mornings, make a batch of pancakes or waffles on the weekend and freeze to enjoy them throughout the week.
Kodiak Cakes® also makes frozen waffles and pancakes that are made with 100% whole grain and contain 10-14 grams of protein per serving. You can find these in the freezer section of your store for a quick and easy breakfast that is ready in minutes.
Dietary fat plays many important roles in the body. Fat is necessary for the absorption, transportation, and storage of fat-soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, K). Fat also helps protect our internal organs, and essential fatty acids are necessary for optimal brain function. Thus, it is important for athletes to choose healthy, unsaturated fats to include in their diet.
Healthy fat sources athletes can add to their breakfasts include:
Avocados are a great way to add healthy fats, vitamins, minerals, and fiber to your breakfast. The majority of fat found in avocados is monounsaturated fat, a type of unsaturated fat. Monounsaturated fats are considered healthy fats, as they can help reduce LDL-cholesterol levels in the body. When eaten in moderation, monounsaturated fats are a healthy addition to your meal plan.
Avocados also contain many vitamins and minerals, including the electrolyte potassium. Potassium helps the body maintain fluid balance, transmits nerve signals, and plays an important role in muscle contraction.
Consider adding sliced avocados to your morning toast, mixing into your scrambled eggs, or even blending into your smoothie to boost the nutrient content.
Nuts and Nut Butters
Nuts and nut butters contain monounsaturated fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals, making them a nutritious addition to your breakfast. Different types of nuts provide different nutritional benefits, so try to include a variety in your overall sports nutrition meal plan.
Walnuts, sliced almonds, or chopped pecans make a great addition to breakfast cereal, oatmeal, and as a crunchy topping on Greek yogurt. At breakfast, enjoy nut butters as a topping on toast or pancakes, stirred into your oatmeal for a delicious nutty flavor, or blended into a smoothie.
Seeds: Flaxseeds and Chia Seeds
Flaxseeds and chia seeds are nutrient dense seeds that provide fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, protein, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. The seeds are versatile and can easily be added into your morning oatmeal, smoothies, and yogurt.
Chia seeds have a remarkable ability to absorb water. Chia seeds can be used as a vegan egg substitute and also are a great addition to smoothies and overnight oats. Since chia seeds do not have much flavor, they provide an easy way to increase the nutrient content of your meal.
Flaxseeds are typically consumed ground, as it is easier for the body to digest and absorb the nutrients in the ground form. Ground flaxseeds can be added into breakfast baked goods such as muffins and pancake mix. You can also stir a tablespoon of ground flaxseeds into your bowl of breakfast cereal, adding in fiber, protein, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Similar to avocados and nuts, olive oils are rich in monounsaturated fats. Olive oil also contains polyphenols, which serve as antioxidants in the body. At breakfast consider topping avocado toast with a drizzle of olive oil. You can also use olive oil to scramble your eggs or cook breakfast potatoes.
As you plan your breakfasts for the week, aim to include a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, protein, and healthy fat sources. There is no one super food, as different foods provide a variety of nutrients that support your overall health and sports performance. Try to rotate foods throughout the week rather than eating the same thing every day for breakfast.
Key 3: Think Outside the Box
Non-Traditional Healthy Breakfasts for Athletes
If traditional breakfast foods such as eggs and pancakes do not appeal to you, think outside the box about what foods you would enjoy. There is nothing wrong with enjoying more traditional lunch or dinner items at breakfast time. When building your meal, keep in mind the goal of including a foundation of carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
Consider the ideas below for non-traditional breakfasts:
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat bread, banana, glass of ultra-filtered milk
- Turkey, cheese, and avocado wrap with 100% fruit juice
- English muffin pizza made with turkey pepperoni slices, shredded cheese, and tomato sauce
Healthy Breakfasts On the Go for Athletes
Keeping breakfast items on hand to make a quick breakfast on-the-go is a great way to support your sports nutrition needs. The items below make great additions to your breakfast when time is limited.
- Overnight oats – make the night before to have ready to go in the morning.
- Packets of instant oatmeal – consider making two packets of instant oatmeal and stirring in nut butter for a quick and easy breakfast.
- Bars – granola bars, breakfast bars, and fig bars are all great to keep on hand for a quick breakfast on-the-go. When you are looking for a quick, KIND® Breakfast Bars are Nature’s Bakery® Fig Bars are great whole grain options to enjoy.
- Single-serving packets of nut butters – great to spread on a bagel, mix into your instant oatmeal, or use as a topping on crunchy granola bars. If you have a nut allergy, consider SunButter® products. They are made with sunflower seeds and allergen free.
- Cheese sticks or string cheese – perfect item to grab on your way out the door to add protein to your breakfast.
- Smoothies – consider preparing a batch of smoothies in advance and freezing individual servings in freezer-safe mason jars. The night before you want the smoothie, move it to the refrigerator and let it defrost overnight. Grab your smoothie on the way out the door, stir, and enjoy.
- You can also freeze your smoothie into popsicle molds, which makes for a quick, delicious breakfast treat for mornings when you are in a hurry.
Ready to Build Healthy Breakfasts for Athletes
You are now equipped with ideas for building a healthy breakfast for athletes. Remember to plan ahead, focus on including carbohydrates, lean proteins, and healthy fats, and to think outside the box.
If you are interested in learning sports nutrition tips to keep you fueled for competition, check-out my recent blog, Your Guide to Game Day Nutrition.
For additional suggestions on ways to meet your performance nutrition needs visit with a Registered Dietitian who can work with you on developing a customized sports nutrition meal plan.
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- Jäger, R., Kerksick, C. M., Campbell, B. I., Cribb, P. J., Wells, S. D., Skwiat, T. M., Purpura, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Ferrando, A. A., Arent, S. M., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Stout, J. R., Arciero, P. J., Ormsbee, M. J., Taylor, L. W., Wilborn, C. D., Kalman, D. S., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D. S., Hoffman, J. R., … Antonio, J. (2017). International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 20. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
About The Author
Mandy is a Sports Dietitian Nutritionist in the San Antonio, TX area. She is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Board-Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics, a Licensed Athletic Trainer, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. Mandy believes the key to reaching one’s full potential, both in everyday life and in sports performance, relies on a healthy nutritional foundation. Learn more about the work Mandy does here.