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Eat Hearty Breakfast, Lose Weight—and Keep It Off

Breakfast More Important than Calorie Count

If you skip or skimp on breakfast, you might want to consider a change.

Researchers from Israel found that eating a high-carb, high-protein breakfast overcomes the hunger and craving that lead to long-term weight gain. Dieters who ate a hearty breakfast lost four times as much weight as dieters who ate the same number of calories, but skimped on breakfast.

The details—and the explanation—are eye-opening.

One hundred and ninety three obese men and women were randomly assigned to one of two diet groups with identical calorie intake; the men ate 1600 calories a day and the women 1400. The difference was that one group ate a low carbohydrate breakfast containing 300 calories and the other group ate a 600 calorie breakfast high in carbohydrate and protein. (The 600-calorie breakfast including a sweet snack; participants were allowed to select chocolate, cookies, cake, etc. Not necessary in my opinion; see below. Nevertheless, it does highlight the importance of satisfaction.) 

In addition to weight loss and maintenance, the researchers compared the effect of the two breakfasts on appetite, craving, and ghrelin levels.

Half way into the 32 week study, both groups had lost about the same amount of weight: 33 pounds in the skimpy breakfast group and 30 pounds in the hearty breakfast group. Again, both groups consumed the same number of calories. What happened next is startling.

During the second 16 weeks, the men and women given the low-carbohydrate, low-calorie breakfast regained an average of 22 pounds per person, while the high-carb, high-protein breakfast group lost another 15 pounds. At the end of the study, those consuming the 600 calorie breakfast lost an average of 34 pounds more than those who were limited to 300 calorie at breakfast, 45 pounds compared to a net loss of only 11 pounds.

Importantly, ghrelin, the hunger hormone, rose before every meal, but was reduced 45.2% after the high-carb, high-protein breakfast, compared to only 29.5% after the low-carb, low-calorie breakfast. “Satiety was significantly improved and hunger and craving scores significantly reduced” in the group that ate the 600 calorie breakfast, the researchers reported.

Though they consumed the same daily calories, “the participants in the low carbohydrate diet group had less satisfaction, and felt that they were not full,” lead researcher Professor Daniela Jakubowicz explained, noting that their cravings for sugar and carbohydrate were more intense and eventually caused them to cheat on the diet plan. “But the group that consumed a bigger breakfast, including dessert, experienced few if any cravings for those foods later in the day.”

“To achieve long term weight loss, the diet meal timing and macronutrient composition has to counteract mechanisms that encourage regain after weight loss,” the researchers from Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University in Jerusalem wrote in summary. “Enriched breakfast may be a strategy to maintain weight loss and prevent regain over time,” they added. Curbing cravings is a better strategy for weight loss success than deprivation.

The full study was reported in the journal Steroids on March 10, 2012. (The study was also reported in Science Daily.)

*  *  *

Including dessert choices in the 600 calorie breakfast prompted Science Daily to title its article, “New Diet: Top Off Breakfast With—Chocolate Cake?” That header sensationalized the solid and useful content of the study. I believe it masked the key point of the Israeli study, which is simply that a hearty balanced breakfast puts you in the frame of mind to eat sensibly for the rest of the day. A low-carb, low-calorie breakfast puts food upper most in your mind for the rest of the day; self control holds up for a few days or even weeks, but you eventually—inevitably—give in.

It was not necessary to include dessert choices in the Jakubowicz study. Feelings of hunger and deprivation could have been avoided by filling out the 600 calorie breakfast with fruit, nuts, milk, whole grains, and perhaps a little sugar or artificial sweetener. An egg would’ve been another good choice. I believe the results would’ve been the same, perhaps better in the long run. That would’ve allowed the participants to eat more volume, chew more, and left them more satisfied. What’s more, it would’ve served them better nutritionally. 

That’s what I have for breakfast—and I don’t crave sweets.

The cravings in the Jakubowicz study came from lack of carbohydrates—not lack of sweets. 

If I don’t have sweets, I don’t crave sweets. But once I have the first bite, I’m off to the races.

The key is to keep sweets out of sight and out of mind. As long as I can’t see, smell, or taste sweets, I’m perfectly fine. I believe most people are the same—as long as they don’t cut calories too much. The participants in the Israeli study were sedentary and 1600 calories may have been adequate for the men, and 1400 for the women. It would not have been enough for me, however.

Calorie reduction should be done gradually over time. That approach has worked for me over the decades, and I believe it will work for others as well. That includes the participants in the Israeli study.  

It is true, of course, that hunger and deprivation must be avoided. That’s the secret of long term weight control. The Israeli researchers proved that brilliantly. They just went a little overboard.

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