People who are trying to lose weight may hinder their odds of success by skipping breakfast, according to a new study that found that skipping the first meal of the day biases your brain toward craving high-calorie foods over low-calorie foods.
"When people are fasting — in this case skipping breakfast — this obviously leads to people being hungrier, but it also leads to greater activity in areas of the brain involved in reward," Dr. Anthony Goldstone from Imperial College London, U.K., told The Endocrine Society's annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
"In addition, we find that when people are fasting they also prefer high-calorie foods to low-calorie foods," he added.
The findings are based on brain imaging studies performed in 20 nonobese healthy people who were shown pictures of low-calorie foods (salad, vegetables and fish) and high-calorie foods (cake, chocolate, and pizza) and asked to rate how appealing the pictures were after a filling breakfast or after no breakfast at all.
Past studies, Goldstone noted, have shown that people who skip breakfast on a regular basis actually tend to be heavier, tend to get more of their calories from fat, and also tend to gain more weight over the years than those who eat breakfast regularly.
The new study suggests a possible mechanism by which this might occur.
"It may be that when you miss meals, and maybe particularly breakfast, your brain reward system is biased towards these high-calorie foods over the low-calorie foods," Goldstone said, "and this would be an entirely appropriate response of the body in a defense to try to maintain calorie intake."
"This may then be an explanation for why people who miss meals in an attempt to lose weight - something that is used by 30 percent to 40 percent of people trying to lose weight - may actually hinder their attempts to lose weight and actually may have an opposite effect and gain weight," Goldstone said.
These results, he added, support current medical advice to eat a healthy breakfast to prevent weight gain and aid in weight loss.