We’re told that breakfast is the most important meal of the day but did you know that eating a protein-packed meal in the morning could also help you to lose weight?
“Many dieters are tempted to skip breakfast in an effort to cut calories, but going without can undermine your weight loss efforts in a number of ways,” says leading UK nutritionist Dr Marilyn Glenville.
“With no breakfast, your blood sugar will drop within a couple of hours and you can feel moody, irritable and not able to concentrate. Your body will send you off for a quick fix like a cup of coffee and a biscuit to correct that low blood sugar.”
It’s not just a craving for croissants and jam that can de-rail your diet either. “If you miss breakfast your body immediately registers famine and hangs on tight to your fat stores and will even slow down your metabolism,” adds Dr Glenville.
Why protein helps weight loss
A number of previous studies have found a link between skipping breakfast and obesity, while others have shown that slimmers who eat breakfast are better able to lose weight and keep it off, but what’s so special about protein?
“Protein-rich breakfasts can help with weight loss because protein slows down the rate at which the stomach empties its food into the next part of the digestive tract, and so it slows the passage of the carbohydrates that are with it,” explains Dr Glenville.
“As soon as you add a protein (be it animal or vegetable) to a carbohydrate you change it into a slower-releasing carbohydrate, which is a good thing for dieters.
“Because energy is released slowly it helps to regulate the release of insulin – and spikes in insulin lead the body to lay down fat, in the stomach area especially. Eating protein also encourages the production of the fat-burning hormone glucagon. This works in the opposite way to insulin and increases blood glucose by encouraging the body to burn fat for energy.”
Protein breakfasts curb cravings
Eating a high-protein breakfast doesn’t just help prevent belly fat and keep you feeling fuller for longer, it can also reduce cravings for high-fat and high-sugar foods during the rest of the day, according to researchers at the University of Missouri.
Scientists followed the weight loss efforts of a group of women aged between 18 and 20. The first group skipped breakfast while a second consumed a high-protein breakfast consisting of eggs and lean beef. Each breakfast contained 350 calories and the same amount of dietary fat, fibre, sugar and energy density.
Using questionnaires, blood samples and MRI scans of the brain, researchers were able to track brain signals that control food motivation and reward-driven eating behaviour.
Volunteers who ate a high-protein breakfast showed a reduction in brain activity responsible for controlling food cravings. They also snacked less in the evening, and were less likely to opt for high-fat and high-sugar foods compared with their non-breakfast-eating counterparts.
How much protein do you need?
It seems the old adage to ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dinner like a pauper’ is good advice. Experts say that breakfast should be the biggest meal of the day, and you should aim to eat 300 to 500 calories within an hour of waking up.
To benefit from the same effects as those in the study, aim to eat 35 grams of protein for breakfast. The volunteers ate egg and beef-based foods (such as burritos) but there are lots of other foods to try, such as kippers, low-fat natural yoghurt or cottage cheese.
Go to work on an egg
When it comes to choosing what kind of protein to eat for breakfast, you can’t beat eggs.
“Eggs are one of the best quality proteins as they contain all the essential amino acids in one food, which is why they are termed a first class protein or complete protein,” says Dr Glenville.
“Research has also shown that leucine, one of the essential amino acids found in eggs, can help weight loss by stabilising blood sugar levels and encouraging the body to shed fat.”
And contrary to the old myth, although eggs are high in cholesterol, eating one or two a day won’t harm your health. Eggs are also low in saturated fats and can contain good amounts of Omega 3 essential fatty acids when the chickens have been fed well, according to Dr Glenville, so opt for organic free-range and not just free-range for the best quality eggs.