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How Breakfast Can Help You Lose Weight

If there is a most important meal of the day, it certainly must be breakfast. But even Mom didn't know just how important. Eating in the morning does more than fuel your body; it promotes good health by reducing the risk of diabetes, heart disease and obesity. Moreover, eating soon after getting out of bed energizes your brain. You may like to sleep in, but after considering the evidence about breakfast, you'll never again start the day on an empty stomach.

Eat Breakfast, Weigh Less

Watching your weight? Despite its popularity, skipping breakfast to cut calories won't do you any good. In fact, just the opposite. Harvard Medical School researchers found that men and women who ate breakfast every day were far less likely to be obese compared to those who skipped the morning meal.

In a recent study from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, researchers found that people who regularly skipped breakfast were a whopping 450% more likely to be obese than regular breakfast eaters. This doesn't mean that skipping breakfast causes obesity, but a lifestyle pattern that does not include breakfast is frequently associated with overweight.

Moreover, eating breakfast at home certainly has not been linked to overweight. In a carefully controlled metabolic ward study, weight loss was more successful for a small group of women when they ate most of their calories early in the day rather than later on.

This link between breakfast and weight is reinforced by looking at people in the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR), an ongoing research study of people who have lost at least 30 pounds and kept it off for a year or more. Among the nearly 3,000 men and women enrolled in the NWCR, 78% of them eat breakfast every day.

"Breakfast appears to be part of a lifestyle that maximizes the likelihood of maintaining weight loss," says James O. Hill, Ph.D., co-founder of the NWCR and a professor at the University of Colorado. What is it about eating in the morning that prevents weight gain? No one is sure, though it probably helps you manage your hunger throughout the day.

One thing is certain: breakfast alone is not a magic bullet for weight control. To derive breakfast benefits, the morning meal must fit into a balanced diet, and to lose weight, you must not overeat. Be aware that eating breakfast away from home is another story; it has been linked to overweight. That's no surprise, given the larger portions in restaurants these days.

Eat Breakfast, Fend Off Disease

Through its association with obesity, skipping breakfast is also linked to heart disease and elevated blood sugar levels, which often foreshadow type 2 diabetes.

But it's not just eating in the morning that matters. What you eat for breakfast matters too, just like the aforementioned breakfast-eaten-out-doesn't-count caveat. Witness a Harvard study of more than 86,000 male doctors. Those who downed at least one serving of whole grain cereal for breakfast every day for more than five years had the lowest risk of death during that time. "It's likely that antioxidants, fiber and other factors in whole-grain cereals combine to head off heart disease," says Simin Liu, M.D.,Sc.D., the lead researcher of the study. Whole grains help lower blood cholesterol and blood pressure, as well as improve the way the body processes glucose and insulin. Breakfast cereals with added folate and vitamins B6 and B12 are particularly worthy, as this trio keeps arteries clear by lowering blood levels of harmful homocysteine. Whole grains with soy protein are beneficial because soy also helps keep blood cholesterol levels in check.

Breakfast Feeds Your Head

Your brain needs glucose to function and can't store it like the rest of the body can store its energy sources, so last night's dinner or even yesterday's late night snack does it no good the next morning. That's why breakfast is critical for staying sharp.

But what's best to eat? When 22 men and women in their 60's and 70's drank one of several beverages containing pure carbohydrate, pure protein, pure fat or a placebo with no calories, all three calorie-rich drinks improved the participants' performances on a test of short-term memory. Those getting the carbohydrate drink fared best on recall tests given an hour after eating. This doesn't simulate real-life meals, of course, but emphasizes the importance of carbs for brain function.

When you skip breakfast, you miss out on vital nutrients that promote peak cognition throughout the day, says Katherine Tucker, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Tufts University. "Even slight deficiencies in folate and vitamins B6 and B12 reduce your cognitive power, especially as you age," says Tucker. Older people absorb less natural vitamin B12, so those over 50 should seek synthetic sources. A source of folic acid (synthetic folate) is also recommended. Both can be found in fortified cereals.

Breakfast Basics

Whatever your waking hour -- the crack of dawn or deliciously late in the morning -- your body has gone many hours without eating or drinking, so just about any food is better than none. That's not a license to eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts every day, however. When it comes to breakfast, some foods are decidedly better than others. Here's the scoop:

Complex carbohydrates are the cornerstone of the best breakfasts. They produce a long-lasting supply of glucose for the brain and body. Aim for whole grains and fruits.

  • Protein-packed foods, like dairy products, eggs and seafood, provide amino acids to produce neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain). Eggs, a perennial breakfast favorite, are packed with protein, B vitamins and choline, a substance said to promote memory. Despite their cache of cholesterol, one egg a day is okay, says the latest research.
  • Calcium-rich choices further breakfast's fat-fighting abilities. Apparently, ditching dairy is the exact opposite of what you should do to lose weight. "Milk and yogurt help you burn fat and store less of it, while preserving muscle tissue," says Michael Zemel, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of Tennessee. In addition to dairy, calcium can be found in some breakfast cereals and fortified juices, though dairy seems to have an as-yet-unexplained edge for weight loss that involves a hormonal link.
  • Filling foods are essential to maximizing breakfast's benefits if you don't want to get hungry again in an hour or two. Foods like milk, yogurt and fruit have a high water content that can help curb calorie intake at meals, according to Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University and co-author of The Volumetrics Weight Control Plan: Feel Fuller on Fewer Calories (HarperTorch, 2003). "Water as part of food reduces calorie intake at a meal much more than if the same amount of water is consumed as a beverage with the meal," Rolls says.
  • Fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains, vegetables and legumes, slow the digestion of food so you feel fuller longer. And breakfast is the ideal "fiber opportunity."

Author: Elizabeth M. Ward
Publication: Sep 2003 Environmental Nutrition Vol: 26 , Issue: 9