New & Now

Mental Appetites: Neural-response imaging confirms what mother told you: Eat a healthy breakfast.

FOR MILLIONS OF AMERICANS, busy schedules and late-night bedtimes lead to frantic, sleep-deprived mornings. Under such conditions the temptation to forego a healthy breakfast is great. This is especially true among self-conscious teenage girls, who, protests of their parents notwithstanding, often consider skipping meals a speedy path to a slimmer figure.

Now a new study by an MU scientist reiterates what health professionals have been telling us for years: Breakfast is important, particularly if losing weight is a goal.

“Incorporating a healthy breakfast containing protein-rich foods can be a simple strategy for people to stay satisfied longer and, therefore, be less prone to snacking,” says lead author Heather Leidy, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology. “People reach for convenient snack foods to satisfy their hunger between meals, but these foods are almost always high in sugar and fat and add a substantial number of calories to the diet.”

The idea that eating a healthy, protein-rich breakfast would help minimize unhealthy snacking might seem like common sense. But narrowing down the neurological mechanisms responsible for this effect is far from straightforward.

In her three-week-long study, undertaken with funding from the National Institutes of Health, Leidy examined food-related brain responses in breakfast-skipping female teens. She chose the group, she says, in part because previous research has indicated that as many as 60 percent of adolescent girls may be ditching breakfast on a daily basis.

Leidy and her research team recruited volunteers aged 13 to 18 from the Kansas City, Kan., area. All the girls had body mass indexes of 25 or above. Each reported routinely skipping breakfast, but all ate lunch regularly. None had been diagnosed with an eating disorder, nor had any been dieting in the past six months.

Leidy and her team employed a “cross-over” study design that required each volunteer to follow a period of breakfast skipping with seven-day stints of eating two distinct breakfasts: first, a 500-calorie breakfast containing cereal and milk with regular levels of protein; and second, a high-protein meal of specially prepared Belgian waffles, sugar-free syrup and yogurt.

On each of three testing days — right before lunchtime — all study participants viewed food or nonfood images while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI. The volunteers also completed appetite and satiety questionnaires. The researchers used the surveys to identify and measure perceived appetite sensations and hormonal markers in combination with “reward-driven” motivations to eat. The fMRI identified brain responses in specific regions correlated with food motivation and reward behaviors.

After eating breakfast, study participants reported feeling more full and less hungry throughout the morning. The fMRI results supported this, showing that brain activation in regions associated with food motivation and reward was reduced. Perhaps most tellingly, after consuming enhanced-protein breakfasts the girls showed greater positive changes in appetite, satiety and reward-driven eating behavior compared to the normal protein breakfast.

“These findings suggest that a protein-rich breakfast might be an effective strategy to improve appetite control and prevent overeating in young people,” Leidy says. The results were published last year in the journal Obesity.

Eat to Win: Athletes participating in "collision sports" show a greater risk for cognitive decline, especially those with poor diets. Illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

Your Brain on Egg fMRI testing in teens who typically skipped breakfast indicated that a protein- rich breakfast made them less prone to unhealthy mid-day snacking. Illustration by Blake Dinsdale.

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