Starting your day with a large meal packed with both carbohydrates and lean protein, and even a small piece of chocolate, can help lessen cravings and hunger the rest of the day, which can lead to significant weight loss, new research suggests.
Presented at this week's Endocrine Society annual meeting in San Francisco, the new research found that sedentary, obese women lost almost five times as much weight on the "big breakfast" diet as did women following a traditional, restrictive, low-carbohydrate diet.
"We treat obese people by telling them to eat less and exercise more, but that does not take into account feelings of carb cravings and hunger. We have to change our approach and find a diet that can control cravings and hunger," said the study's lead author, Dr. Daniela Jakubowicz, a clinical professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and an endocrinologist at the Hospital de Clinicas Caracas in Venezuela.
Jakubowicz explained that when you wake in the morning, your body is primed to look for food. Your metabolism is revved up, and levels of cortisol and adrenaline are at their highest. Your brain needs energy right away, and if you don't eat or you eat too little, the brain needs to find another fuel source. To do this, it activates an emergency system that pulls energy from muscle, destroying muscle tissue in the process. Then when you eat later, the body and brain are still in high-alert mode, so the body saves energy from the food as fat, she said.
Compounding the problem, your levels of the brain chemical serotonin are highest in the morning, which means your craving levels are at the lowest when you first wake up, and you may not feel much like eating, Jakubowicz said. But as the day wears on, serotonin levels dip, and you get cravings for chocolate or cookies and the like. If you eat these foods, your serotonin levels rise, and your body begins to associate good feelings with them, creating an addictive cycle, she said.
To combat both the addiction cycle and the hunger that inevitably seems to come with calorie reduction, Jakubowicz and her colleagues designed the "big breakfast" diet. In this eating plan, your breakfast accounts for roughly half of your daily calories, and breakfast includes milk, three ounces of lean meat, two slices of cheese, two whole grain servings, one fat serving and one ounce of milk chocolate or candy.
The high-protein/carbohydrate mix gives the body the initial energy boost it needs in the morning. Throughout the rest of the day, the meals are made up of protein and complex carbohydrates, like vegetables. Because protein is digested slowly, Jakubowicz said, you won't feel hungry.
And, she said, by having a small piece of chocolate or candy when serotonin levels are high, it won't taste as good, and the brain won't feel the same serotonin boost, which will eventually help cut down on cravings.
In the study of 94 obese, sedentary women with metabolic syndrome, half were told to eat the big breakfast diet containing about 1,240 calories, while the other half ate a 1,085 calorie high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet for eight months.
At the end of the eight months, those on the more restrictive low-carb diet lost an average of almost nine pounds. But those on the big breakfast diet lost nearly 40 pounds. That translated to an average body mass loss of 4.5% for those on the low-carb diet and a 21.3% average loss for those on the big breakfast plan. Additionally, those on the big breakfast plan reported feeling less hungry and had fewer carbohydrate cravings.
Nutritionist Geri Brewster, a wellness consultant at Northern Westchester Hospital Center in Mount Kisco, New York, said she already recommends a large, well-balanced breakfast to all of her clients because it helps to keep blood sugar levels stable.
She said if you eat a traditional breakfast, something like cereal or a doughnut, your blood sugar and insulin levels spike. Once that blood sugar is used up, you'll still have excess insulin circulating, which makes you hungry and makes you crave carbohydrates.
A second study presented at the meeting reinforced the idea that biological changes occur when you carry excess weight, Brewster said. This study found that women who are overweight don't experience a drop in leptin levels after exercise like lean women do.
Leptin is a hormone that plays a role in appetite regulation and metabolism. Brewster said she wasn't surprised by these findings because once the body is overweight, it tries to maintain that size. "Fat cells become mini-endocrine systems themselves to maintain obesity," she said, and keeping leptin levels elevated is likely one way the body does that.
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