Cereal or Sausage? Bagles or Bacon? Which Breakfast Helps You Lose Weight?

Eating breakfast

Invert your daily meals, say scientists.

Everyone who is trying to eat for weight control knows what's for breakfast and what's for dinner. But scientists say we have it all wrong. And it's making us fat.

The problem we face is metabolic syndrome, which shows up as abdominal obesity, high triglycerides, insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease-risk factors. What scientists have learned can flip your dining schedule upside down -- literally.

We are flipping over a research study by University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), published in the International Journal of Obesity. UAB scientists examined how the type of foods and specific timing of intake affects the development of metabolic syndrome characteristics in mice.

"Studies have looked at the type and quantity of food intake, but nobody has undertaken the question of whether the timing of what you eat and when you eat it influences body weight, even though we know sleep and altered circadian rhythms influence body weight," said the study's lead author Molly Bray, Ph.D., professor of epidemiology in UAB School of Public Health.

The big breakfast surprise

In the study, mice fed a breakfast meal higher in fat had normal metabolic profiles. In contrast, mice who ate a carbohydrate-rich diet in the morning and consumed a high-fat meal at the end of the day got fatter, and also increased adiposity, glucose intolerance and other bad aspects of metabolic syndrome.

Fat intake at the time of waking seems to turn on the body's fat metabolism, and also turns on the ability to properly handle different types of food later in the day. However, eating carbohydrates upon waking seems to turn on carbohydrate metabolism, which then stays active even when eating different kinds of food later in the day.

"The first meal you have appears to program your metabolism for the rest of the day," said study senior author Martin Young, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine in UAB Division of Cardiovascular Disease. "This study suggests that if you ate a carbohydrate-rich breakfast it would promote carbohydrate utilization throughout the rest of the day, whereas, if you have a fat-rich breakfast, you have metabolic plasticity to transfer your energy utilization between carbohydrate and fat."

Bacon and eggs are healthy?

While this study doesn't delve into different types of fat. this isn't a recommendation to ditch cereal and fruit and eat a pile of bacon slathered in cheese. Many other studies show that saturated fats, especially cheese, beef, pork, chicken skin, butter and other animal fats increase the risk of heart disease and stroke, while bacon, ham, hot dogs, sausage and similar preserved meats usually contain chemicals known to cause cancer. There are sources of fat that are reasonably heart-healthy, such as olive oil and peanut butter (real, not the goop marketed to kids). Eggs can be "fried" without butter or bacon fat. Dr. Young says "We're also working on a study right now to determine if these feeding regimens adversely affect heart function."

It is still important to eat healthy foods and avoid the bad stuff. The new factor is to be smart about WHEN you eat them. Adjusting the composition of our meals is important in energy balance, say Drs. Bray and Young. Recommendations for weight reduction and/or maintenance should include information about the timing of dietary intake, plus the quality and quantity of what we eat.

Watch your weight

If weight loss or control is on your to-do list, the most practical action based on this study is to rearrange your daily meals. Instead of having a light carb-based breakfast and a large meat-based dinner, switch them. "Eat breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper" seems to be the best advice.

"Humans eat a mixed diet, and our study, which we have repeated four times in animals, seems to show that if you really want to be able to efficiently respond to mixed meals across a day then a meal in higher fat content in the morning is a good thing," says Dr. Bray. 

"Another important component of our study is that, at the end of the day, the mice ate a low-caloric density meal, and we think that combination is key to the health benefits we've seen."

Keep in mind that further research is needed to test different types of dietary fats and carbohydrates. And the really big test is whether what happens with mice also happens with humans.

But -- If enough people change their eating behavior as this study suggests, imagine what might happen to the food and dining industry -- flipped upside-down. Will steak houses open for breakfast? Will cereal makers promote quick-and-easy dinners? Will IHOP become a popular supper house? Eating breakfast

Jay Rubin
Wow! I have been doing this for years with a guilty conscience. Now I am a happy camper. Thanks!