Breakfast has long been called the most important meal. A new study has found that skipping breakfast can lead to weight gain. Not only are those who forego the first meal of the day more likely to eat a bigger lunch, but to choose foods that are more unhealthy and higher in fats.
For the study, which was presented at a recent meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans, Tony Goldstone of the MRC Clinical Science Centre at Imperial College London scanned the brains of 21 men and women around the age of 25 on two different days. Both times, the participants were shown pictures of food (chocolate, pizza, vegetables, fish) and asked to rate how appealing they found the items.
On one day, the participants did not eat breakfast before they had their brains scanned. On the other day, they were given a 750 calorie breakfast of cereals and jam (a little heavy on the carbohydrates, I might say!) an hour before the brain scans. On both days, the participants were given lunch after the scans and told they could eat as much as they wished.
Goldstone found that, when participants had not eaten breakfast, they rated the high-calorie foods as more appealing and also ate about 20 percent more for lunch. When they went breakfastless, the participants’ brain scans differed, showing that “activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, which is just above the eyes, was especially responsive to high-calorie foods.” As Goldstone says in the Guardian, the belief is that this region of the brain “encodes the value of rewards – how rewarding, how pleasant, how tasty something is. Not just food but other rewards seem to be signalled there in the brain.”
Moreover, the researchers found that activity in the orbitofrontal cortex increases the more you like the food that you’re eating and decreases when you are told to restrict your desire for tasty (high fat) foods.
Evolution and Fasting: Why We Don’t First Reach For Lettuce
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense that prolonged fasting would lead to certain of our brain regions sending out signals for us to seek higher calorie foods. As Goldstone observes, doing so “makes evolutionary sense if you’re in a negative energy-balance situation. You’re not going to waste your time going for lettuce.”
Rather, you’re going to search out the foods that offer you a quicker “fix,” to restore your energy.
Why Breakfast Is The Most Important Meal of the Day
Goldstone’s findings provide evidence for how skipping meals can actually lead to dieters gaining weight over time. It would be well for public health officials seeking to curb rising rates of obesity in adults and in children to consider his study.
It is also oft-noted that children who skip breakfast perform less well in school, struggle more with attention in class and so forth; could doing so also be putting them even more at risk for obesity? Well-intentioned federal policies have led to an overhaul of lunches in public schools with an emphasis on fruits, vegetables and whole grains and with restrictions on calories and fat. But there have been reports of students tossing out undesired healthy food and (if I may refer to the behaviors I routinely observe in my college students), their first food choice once getting out of school is not likely to be a nice crisp apple but something full of sugar, sodium and, yes, fat in neon-bright packaging.
Goldstone’s study suggests that, when it comes to issues of weight and eating, we may be more the creatures of long-ago evolutationary adaptions than we, living a sedentary 21st century lifestyle, may care to admit. His findings do offer yet another reason to start your day if not with some “food product” like this, but with a good meal — though maybe a more-balanced one than the cereals, breads and jams the researchers offered the study’s participants.
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