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Trying to lose weight? Put down that bagel! A new study shows that eating loads of protein at breakfast — 35 grams or more! — can reduce mindless snacking and help control appetite throughout the day. So, should we ditch the cereal and chow down on yogurt and eggs in the morning? Or is the research a load of protein-rich baloney? Keep reading for the lowdown on this breakfast showdown.

What’s the Deal?

Researchers from the University of Missouri wanted to understand how consuming a protein-packed breakfast would affect overweight and obese young womenBeneficial effects of a higher-protein breakfast on the appetitive, hormonal, and neural signals controlling energy intake regulation in overweight/obese, “breakfast-skipping,” late-adolescent girls. Leidy HJ, Ortinau LC, Douglass SM, Hoertel HA. Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, School of Medicine, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2013 April;97(4):677-88.. The researchers found that eating a high-protein breakfast made the young women feel fuller throughout the day and eat a smaller dinner and fewer nighttime snacks. In contrast, starting the day with a low-protein breakfast or no breakfast at all made the study subjects more likely to graze on unhealthy (high-calorie but low-nutrient) foods throughout the day.

How did they come to these conclusions? The researchers recruited 20 young women who qualified as overweight or obese on the BMI scale. Each woman was assigned a specific set of breakfast instructions, to be followed for seven consecutive days and for a total of three seven-day cycles. During the first cycle, all participants were given a high-protein breakfast; during the second, they were provided with low-protein breakfast foods; and during the last cycle the group was instructed to skip breakfast entirely. Each seven-day breakfast cycle was separated from the previous one by seven days of “regular” eating. On the seventh day of each cycle, all of the participants showed up for a day of testing in the lab.

On the testing day, the researchers put the study subjects through a barrage of tests in order to measure participants’ overall perceived hunger, desire to eat, and satiety after eating. The tests included computer questionnaires about hunger and fullness, blood samples and hormonal analysis, MRI brain scans, and access to dinner food. After a long day of testing, the subjects were sent home with a cooler of both healthy and unhealthy snacks for any late-night munchies. The scientists then made note of which (and how many) of the snacks were gone in the morning.

Why It Matters

This study provides researchers with insight into the way the body responds to certain breakfast foods throughout the day. For instance, why can an omelet reduce pm fridge-raiding, but cereal can’t? Researchers believe the answer is in the hormones. Eating protein early in the day seems to affect gastrointestinal hormones, which signal the brain to adjust appetite and satiety.

In this study, the scientists found that after a high-protein meal, there was a significant drop in ghrelin (a hunger-stimulating hormone) and an elevation in PYY (a satiety-stimulating hormone)Gut hormones and appetite control: a focus on PYY and GLP-1 as therapeutic targets in obesity. De Silva A, Bloom SR. Department of Diabetes, Endocrinology and Metabolism, Hammersmith Campus, Imperial College London, London, UK. Gut and Liver. 2012 January;6(1):10-20.. Eating a low-protein breakfast did briefly alter these hormones, but the effects wore off relatively quickly. In contrast, eating high-protein foods changed hormonal levels for much longer, even through the afternoon and evening.

Is it Legit?

Probably, but more research is definitely needed. It’s no surprise that protein keeps you fuller longer than simple carbs and sugar. Heck, we’ve even written about how eating protein in the morning can reduce hunger throughout the day. This study was unique in that it’s the first to focus on how eating a high-protein breakfast can affect eating habits among overweight or obese young adults, specifically. The study could have far-reaching implications for how Americans think about breakfast, especially given the connection between obesity and skipping the am meal.

On the other hand, the study had some serious limitations. The researchers utilized a very limited pool of subjects — only 20 young women (with an average age of 19) from one specific geographic area in the United States. The study is also at risk for conflict of interest, since it was partially funded by the Beef Check-Off and the Egg Nutrition Center (the research arm of the American Egg Board), both of which have financial incentives for promoting high-protein breakfasts. Although the study’s implications for obese and overweight people are interesting, more research is needed in order to draw definitive conclusions.

What do you usually eat in the morning? Do you think having protein for breakfast makes you feel less hungry throughout the day? Tell us in the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene.