Nutrition

High Protein Vs. High Carb Breakfast | Which Is Best?

“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day” is probably one of the most heard phrases about nutrition. Yet that doesn’t stop many of us from skipping or neglecting it when we are short on time in the morning.

But for breakfast believers, there are two main camps: high protein or high carb. Is one better than the other? Let’s find out.

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high carb vs high protein breakfast

Protein or carbs for breakfast?

Both protein and carbs make sense as a core breakfast macro because they both provide plenty of nutrients to help fuel us and stop us feeling hungry throughout the day. The truth is each macronutrient each has its own benefits.

 

Benefits of a high-protein breakfast

Protein, despite its reputation, is not just for bodybuilders and gym bros. High protein diets have been seen to have various benefits for health and physical composition, including improved blood pressure, less body fat and greater weight loss.1

But a high protein diet isn’t necessarily all meat. A large-scale systematic review and meta-analysis with over 700,000 participants found that higher intake of total protein was associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality, and that intake of plant protein was associated with a lower risk of all-cause and cardiovascular disease mortality.2

The researchers saw that an additional 3% of energy from plant proteins per day was associated with a 5% lower risk of death from all causes. They went on to suggest that we should consider replacing some of the animal protein foods with plant protein sources as it may enhance longevity.2

 

Regulating energy

Protein may help regulate blood sugar levels. Improving glycemic control helps to better regulate our blood sugar levels, providing a more sustained feeling of “energy”.

 

Helping weight management and body composition goals

Higher protein diets may just be the key to helping people lose body fat and keep it off for good.

Studies have repeatedly highlighted protein’s effectiveness for weight loss.3 One study looked at whey protein consumption at breakfast compared to another protein source and a higher carbohydrate breakfast meal. The researchers found that the whey protein group had significantly greater weight loss and fat loss outcomes, as well as metabolic marker improvement, over the other two groups.

There are a few reasons why protein is so effective when it comes to weight management.

The first reason is its thermogenic properties. Protein is the most thermogenic of the three major macronutrients, meaning it requires the energy to be digested by the body (i.e. it burns more calories).

Secondly, over-consumption of protein may not even result in weight and or fat gain, especially when compared to carbohydrates and or fats.4

Thirdly, higher protein diets and meals have a profound effect on satiety response and hunger.5

 

Satiety and hunger regulation

Protein does a great job of making us feel fully satisfied after eating. But on top of its satiating properties, protein consumption also promotes the secretion of hunger-regulating hormones leptin and ghrelin. Leptin is the hormone that regulates fullness, while ghrelin is the hormone that makes us feel hungry. Higher protein intake reduces ghrelin and promotes leptin, decreasing appetite.5

While this is important for weight loss it can also be an important factor in performance, not only for exercise but also in everyday life. If we’re constantly distracted by the feeling of hunger, we won’t be able to fully concentrate on daily tasks.

 

Benefits of a high carb breakfast

Champions of the high carb breakfast are the other camp proudly fighting in the breakfast wars.

While the first thing that comes to many of our minds when thinking of high carbohydrate breakfast are sugary bowls of cereal, there are plenty of nutritious options for a carbohydrate-dense breakfast. Perhaps the best known is the humble porridge bowl.

Healthy carb-rich breakfast foods also include fruits, veggies and whole grains, which are all jam packed with various nutrients and minerals.

 

Fuelling movement

One of the major benefits of a high carb breakfast relates to how it fits within your routine.

The main purpose of your breakfast could be to fuel an early morning exercise session. A high carb breakfast would be a perfect choice for that, giving you a readily available alternative fuel source that could help you perform for longer, perform better and recover faster after a session.6

It may also help prevent the breakdown of your own carbohydrate stores (in the form of glycogen).

 

Managing hunger and improving gut health

Another benefit of higher carbohydrate breakfasts would be increasing your intake of fibre and other more difficult to digest carbohydrate forms.

Fibre is fantastic. It plays an important role in maintaining a healthy gut microbiome, and the recommended intake of 30g per day can lower the risk of serious diseases and have improved weight management outcomes.7

 

Potential mood-boosting benefits

One of the unique benefits of a higher carbohydrate breakfast may be its influence on improving your mood. Higher carbohydrate diets have been linked to lower levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.8

Given the hectic lives we live these days, it may be better to opt for a higher carbohydrate breakfast if you are feeling particularly stressed or low in mood.

 

Is it better to have more carbs or protein for breakfast?

Both high protein and high carb breakfasts have various benefits, so choosing one or the other depends on your goals. If weight management and body composition is your primary objective, then a high protein breakfast is probably best for its ability to keep us feeling fuller for longer.

But if you’re planning to go on an early morning jog or gym session, then a high carb breakfast might be a better idea.

 

Take home message

Personally, my preference is a high protein breakfast, but it also doesn’t have to be completely one or the other. You can easily have a balanced meal containing both protein and carbs.

Oats and whey protein (or a similar alternative) are great, and even something as simple as a protein bar is fine too (if you’d prefer a smaller meal or something on the go). A smoked salmon bagel is heavenly, and low fat Greek yoghurt with mixed berries and granola is a perfect sweet tooth choice for a well-fuelled day.

Want more breakfast ideas?

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Our articles should be used for informational and educational purposes only and are not intended to be taken as medical advice. If you’re concerned, consult a health professional before taking dietary supplements or introducing any major changes to your diet.


  1. Santesso, N., Akl, E., Bianchi, M. et al. Effects of higher- versus lower-protein diets on health outcomes: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Eur J Clin Nutr 66, 780–788 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ejcn.2012.37
  2. Yu, Z., Nan, F., Wang, L. Y., Jiang, H., Chen, W., & Jiang, Y. (2020). Effects of high-protein diet on glycemic control, insulin resistance and blood pressure in type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Clinical nutrition (Edinburgh, Scotland), 39(6), 1724–1734. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.clnu.2019.08.008
  3. Hansen, T. T., Astrup, A., & Sjödin, A. (2021). Are Dietary Proteins the Key to Successful Body Weight Management? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Studies Assessing Body Weight Outcomes after Interventions with Increased Dietary Protein. Nutrients, 13(9), 3193. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13093193
  4. Leaf, A., & Antonio, J. (2017). The Effects of Overfeeding on Body Composition: The Role of Macronutrient Composition – A Narrative Review. International journal of exercise science, 10(8), 1275–1296.
  5. Weigle, D. S., Breen, P. A., Matthys, C. C., Callahan, H. S., Meeuws, K. E., Burden, V. R., & Purnell, J. Q. (2005). A high-protein diet induces sustained reductions in appetite, ad libitum caloric intake, and body weight despite compensatory changes in diurnal plasma leptin and ghrelin concentrations. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 82(1), 41–48. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn.82.1.41
  6. Kerksick, C. M., Arent, S., Schoenfeld, B. J., Stout, J. R., Campbell, B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Kalman, D., Smith-Ryan, A. E., Kreider, R. B., Willoughby, D., Arciero, P. J., VanDusseldorp, T. A., Ormsbee, M. J., Wildman, R., Greenwood, M., Ziegenfuss, T. N., Aragon, A. A., & Antonio, J. (2017). International society of sports nutrition position stand: nutrient timing. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 14, 33. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0189-4
  7. Barber, T. M., Kabisch, S., Pfeiffer, A., & Weickert, M. O. (2020). The Health Benefits of Dietary Fibre. Nutrients, 12(10), 3209. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12103209
  8. Soltani, H., Keim, N. L., & Laugero, K. D. (2019). Increasing Dietary Carbohydrate as Part of a Healthy Whole Food Diet Intervention Dampens Eight Week Changes in Salivary Cortisol and Cortisol Responsiveness. Nutrients, 11(11), 2563. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11112563


Jamie Wright

Jamie Wright

Writer and expert

Jamie Wright holds an MSc Degree in Human Nutrition and a BSc (Hons) in Sports and Exercise Science, and now works with multiple organisations as well as running his own private nutritionist coaching services company, Balance, along with his team of qualified experts, to help individuals with their nutritional goals. He is accredited with the Association for Nutrition and has helped hundreds of clients; from those with eating disorders to internationally competing athletes. Jamie supports his clients with evidence-based, holistic nutrition programming to reach their health and fitness goals. In addition to running his practice, Jamie regularly contributes to the field of nutrition presenting and writing on its many facets. He has had his research presented at the UK Obesity Congress as well as overseas conferences and has authored several e-books whilst contributing to others (including charitable sporting organisations). His research has centred around weight management as well as sports / exercise performance and supplementation. A massive sport nut, avid gym goer and lover of all things dog related, Jamie’s goal in sharing the experience and knowledge he has gained academically and professionally is to provide a source of clarity in the vast amount of “misinformation and noise” that exists within the health and fitness industry. You can check his work out further at Balance, @balance_ie or @jamiesdietguide on social media.