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A study by U.S. researchers found that teenagers who skipped breakfast were prone to obesity. But those who ate a protein-rich breakfast were found to have less food cravings and were less likely to overeat later in the day. They said eating breakfast, particularly a high-protein one, increases levels of the brain chemical dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ messenger which is associated with feelings of reward. Understanding the brain chemical and its role in food cravings could lead to improvements in obesity prevention and treatment, they added.
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“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-Columbia. “However, breakfasts that are high in protein also reduced cravings for savory — or high-fat — foods. On the other hand, if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day.”
Higher dopamine levels help people fend off cravings and make it through their days without blowing the caloric budget. When we eat, dopamine is released into the body, which stimulates feelings reward. Getting this reward from less food, and having its effects linger in the body longer is the key to self-regulating food intake. So Leidy and her team designed a study that examined the effects of different types of breakfasts — low and high protein, low and high carb, and no breakfast at all — on the levels of the hormone in the body throughout the day.
“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. “We tried to identify dietary behaviors 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.”
Participants in the study were young women with an average age of 19; however, Leidy said the findings may be generalized to a larger population of adults.
“In the U.S., people are skipping breakfast more frequently, which is associated with food cravings, overeating and obesity,” Leidy said. “It used to be that nearly 100 percent of American adults, kids and teens were eating breakfast, but over the last 50 years, we have seen a decrease in eating frequency and an increase in obesity.”