Skipping breakfast may increase your likelihood of overeating and eventually gaining weight, a new study has found. Researchers found that eating breakfast, particularly meals rich in protein, increases young adults' levels of a brain chemical associated with feelings of reward, which may reduce food cravings and overeating later in the day.
Understanding the brain chemical and its role in food cravings could lead to improvements in obesity prevention and treatment, researchers said.
"Our research showed that people experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast," said Heather Leidy, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at the University of Missouri.
"However, breakfasts that are high in protein also reduced cravings for savoury - or high-fat - foods. On the other hand, if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day," said Leidy.
Leidy studied the effects of different breakfasts on participants' levels of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in moderating impulses and reward, including food cravings. Dopamine levels were determined by measuring homovanillic acid (HVA), the main dopamine metabolite.
Eating initiates a release of dopamine, which stimulates feelings of food reward. The reward response is an important part of eating because it helps to regulate food intake, Leidy said.
"Dopamine levels are blunted in individuals who are overweight or obese, which means that it takes much more stimulation - or food - to elicit feelings of reward; we saw similar responses within breakfast-skippers," Leidy said.
"To counteract the tendencies to overeat and to prevent weight gain that occurs as a result of overeating, we tried to identify dietary behaviours that provide these feelings of reward while reducing cravings for high-fat foods. Eating breakfast, particularly a breakfast high in protein, seems to do that," Leidy said.
Participants in the study were young women with an average age of 19; however, Leidy said the findings may be generalised to a larger population of adults.
The research was published in the Nutrition Journal.