20-May 2014, by Johannah Sakimura
You may have heard that eating breakfast helps you lose weight, but a recent study suggests the benefits may be even more substantial than once thought. Researchers at Tel Aviv University compared the effects of eating the largest meal of the day at breakfast with the more traditional pattern of eating the largest meal at dinner in a weight loss trial, and, as it turned out, the breakfast eaters had a real advantage.
The two groups of nearly 50 middle-aged, overweight women in the study ate the same number of total calories — 1400 a day — but the “big breakfast” eaters ate 700 calories at breakfast, 500 at lunch, and 200 at dinner. The “big dinner” eaters, on the other hand, ate 200 calories at breakfast, 500 at lunch, and 700 and dinner.
After 12 weeks on their assigned diet, both groups lost weight, but the “big breakfast” eaters shed about 19 pounds on average, more than twice as many pounds as those in the “big dinner” group, who lost about 8 pounds. That’s a pretty clear difference! The high-calorie breakfast eaters also trimmed over 3 inches off their waistline, compared to a 1.4 inch loss for the high-cal dinner eaters. The morning eaters gained other health benefits as well. They had lower levels of triglycerides, insulin, and blood sugar compared to the “big dinner” eaters at the end of the study, which was published in the journal Obesity.
So, the women who ate most of their calories at breakfast lost significantly more weight, despite the fact that they ate the same number of calories as the women in the high-calorie dinner group. This flies in the face of the traditional notion that “a calorie is a calorie,” suggesting that when you eat your food, in addition to how much you eat, may influence how quickly you lose weight. Indeed, evidence that “a calorie isn’t a calorie” is mounting in all directions. What you eat seems to matter as well – research suggests that a meal made up of whole foods (like vegetables, fruits, and whole grains) actually contributes fewer calories than an equivalent meal of processed foods, presumably because your body works harder and uses more energy to digest whole foods.
The calorie allotments in this study were a bit extreme, and I’m not suggesting you eat only 200 calories for dinner. That’s a tough ask, especially given that this eating schedule is such a big shift from our cultural norm of eating a large evening meal. But the research does lend some credence to the old-fashioned diet advice, “Eat breakfast like a king, eat lunch like a prince, and eat dinner like a pauper.” Many people do the exact opposite. They skip breakfast, and perhaps even lunch (understandably because they’re busy or running from one place to the next), eat a large dinner when they finally get home after a long day, and then snack well into the evening hours. This study suggests that our late-night eating habits may be hurting our waistlines and our overall health.
So, rather than take this research to extremes, it may be helpful to gradually shift your food intake towards a more balanced distribution throughout the day, or perhaps even go a bit heavier at your morning meals. In any case, make an effort to start your day with a healthy, balanced morning meal, especially if you’re watching your weight, because skipping breakfast to “save calories” definitely doesn’t seem to help in the long run.
A bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk and fruit or scrambled eggs with whole-wheat toast are fine options, but I prefer to mix things up. Try a homemade yogurt parfait with low-fat yogurt, fruit, and crunchy cereal, or a slice of toast with part-skim ricotta topped with berries or sliced peaches (substitute sliced tomato for a savory version). If you enjoy eggs, try adding some produce to the mix. Enjoy a omelet with spinach and a bit of feta cheese, or make a quick breakfast sandwich by layering a whole-grain English muffin with eggs, tomato, and avocado (YUM!). During summer months, I make refreshing smoothies using a base of fruit, milk, and lots of ice. Running out the door? Grab a hard-boiled egg, yogurt, and piece of fruit for the road — or a whole-wheat sandwich with almond or peanut butter and sliced banana (who says sandwiches are only for lunch?!).
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