If you're trying to lose weight, breakfast may not be complete without dessert: Intriguing new research suggests dieting is more about when to indulge than what to avoid.
It sounds too delicious to be true, but according to Israeli researchers, finishing off a protein-rich breakfast with something sweet—like a doughnut, a slice of cake, even chocolate mousse—might be the ever-elusive secret to shedding pounds and keeping them off.
In the study, two groups of overweight and obese people were instructed to consume the same number of calories daily (1,400 for women, 1,600 for men); the difference was that one group ate a modest breakfast each morning, while the other went all out with a high-calorie (600), high-carb (60 grams), high-protein (45 grams) meal that included a sugary treat. (Imagine a scramble of cottage cheese and eggs—two with the yolk, one without—on whole grain toast, an eight-ounce container of low-fat yogurt on the side, plus a fudge brownie.)
After eight months, the dessert-at-breakfast group had lost an average of 38 more pounds per person than the traditional dieters. An interesting twist occurred halfway through the study: During the first 16 weeks, both groups dropped about the same amount of weight. But over the next 16 weeks, the big-breakfast eaters continued to slim down (losing another 15 pounds) while the small-breakfast eaters gained back more than 75 percent of the weight they'd lost. Why? They'd started to cheat—which makes sense given that they reported feeling hungrier and had higher levels of the appetite hormone ghrelin.
When it comes to maintaining weight loss, "curbing your cravings is more important than deprivation," explains lead author Daniela Jakubowicz, MD, who adds that morning is an ideal time to satisfy your body's nutritional demands as well as your sweet tooth. Previous research suggests that an energizing dose of protein at breakfast leads to a greater sense of satiety than protein consumed at either lunch or dinner. And topping off the A.M. meal with dessert might provide a rush of serotonin (the "happy" chemical) that diminishes cravings for the rest of the day. Plus, your levels of adrenaline and cortisol are at their peak early in the day: "These hormones help convert food into energy rather than fat," says Jakubowicz, "so the same food is less fattening in the morning than in the afternoon."
Hannah El-Amin, a dietitian and diabetes educator at Chicago's Northwestern Integrative Medicine, believes this strategy could work for any woman, whether she's looking to lose ten pounds or 100. "Dieters assume that the key to weight loss is having the willpower to suffer through hunger pangs," El-Amin says. "But most dieters fail. What they're missing is a feeling of satisfaction." To prevent relapses, El-Amin advises eating meals that are not only balanced but also gratifying. Data from the Israeli study bears out her theory: The dessert-at-breakfast subjects had significantly less desire for sweets and fatty foods during the day than the subjects on the more traditional diet.
Jakubowicz's golden rule for lasting weight loss? It actually seems quite simple when she boils down her findings. "If you're hungry before lunch, you didn't eat enough protein in the morning, and if you crave a sweet in the afternoon, you forgot your cookie at breakfast."
Gina Roberts-Grey is a freelance writer based in upstate New York.