The Breakfast Nutrient That Keeps You Alert & Calm

December 16, 2014 Updated: December 15, 2014

What do the following breakfast menus have in common?

Coffee and doughnut.
Pancakes with syrup.
Milk with sweet cereal.

Yes, they are quick to put together and taste good. But if you start feeling irritable and jittery a few hours later, these very foods could be responsible, thanks to the quick blood sugar rise and crash they cause.

That’s because they have one other factor in common: they lack protein.

Protein takes longer for the stomach to digest, so it keeps you feeling satisfied for longer. This in turn helps keep blood sugar levels stable, easing feelings of anxiety and nervousness.

But this nerve-easing benefit goes even further when you eat proteins at breakfast. Researchers at the Franklin Institute explain that a morning meal high in protein raises your brain’s tyrosine levels. This helps your brain produce neurotransmitters called norepinephrine and dopamine, which give you energy and make you feel awake and alert.

As a bonus, protein-rich foods eaten in the morning help control cravings for fatty foods later in the day. Scientists at the University of Missouri found that those who ate a high-protein breakfast ate 26% fewer calories at lunch than those who ate the same number of calories but lower amounts of protein for breakfast. “Breakfasts that are high in protein also reduce cravings for savory – or high-fat – foods. On the other hand, if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day,” observes Heather Leidy, a nutritionist who was part of the research team.

The Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of protein is 46 grams for women between 19 and 70 years of age, and 56 grams for men in the same age bracket.


Here are some easy ways to add a little more protein—and thus a little more energy and calm—to your all-important morning meal:

  • An ounce of dry-roasted sunflower seeds gives you 5 grams of protein. They also contain magnesium, known to be a stress-reducing mineral that nurtures the health of your nerves. Add them to hot or cold cereal, or try them on scrambled egg.
  • Just 2 tablespoons of delicious peanut butter or almond butter, and you have about 8 grams of protein. Spread this on whole wheat toast, and enjoy a glass of skim milk for an additional 8 mood-boosting grams of protein.
  • 8 ounces of Greek yogurt gives you 11 grams of protein per serving. Studies have shown that the naturally occuring probiotics in this yogurt relieve stress and anxiety.
  • A whole wheat sandwich with hummus, almonds, and goat cheese can provide up to 22 grams of protein.
  • A single-serving cup of cottage cheese adds a whopping 28 grams of protein
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*Images of “eggs” and “cottage cheese” via Shutterstock