Dietary components may affect brain function and influence behaviour by inducing the synthesis of neurotransmitters. The aim of the present study was to examine the influence of consumption of a whey protein-containing breakfast drink v. a carbohydrate drink v. control on subjective and physiological responses to mental workload in simulated work. In a randomised cross-over design, ten healthy subjects (seven women, median age 26 years, median BMI 23 kg/m2) participated in a single-blinded, placebo-controlled study. The subjects performed demanding work-like tasks after having a breakfast drink high in protein (HP) or high in carbohydrate (HC) or a control drink on separate sessions. Subjective states were assessed using the NASA Task Load Index (NASA-TLX), the Karolinska sleepiness scale (KSS) and the modified Profile of Mood States. Heart rate was recorded during task performance. The ratio of plasma tryptophan (Trp) to the sum of the other large neutral amino acids (LNAA) and salivary cortisol were also analysed. The plasma Trp:LNAA ratio was 30 % higher after the test drinks HP (median 0·13 (μmol/l)/(μmol/l)) and HC (median 0·13 (μmol/l)/(μmol/l)) than after the control drink (median 0·10 (μmol/l)/(μmol/l)). The increase in heart rate was smaller after the HP (median 2·7 beats/min) and HC (median 1·9 beats/min) drinks when compared with the control drink (median 7·2 beats/min) during task performance. Subjective sleepiness was reduced more after the HC drink (median KSS − 1·5) than after the control drink (median KSS − 0·5). There were no significant differences between the breakfast types in the NASA-TLX index, cortisol levels or task performance. We conclude that a breakfast drink high in whey protein or carbohydrates may improve coping with mental tasks in healthy subjects.