How Breakfast Changes Your Brain

cottage cheese berries

People tend to fall into one of two camps when it comes to breakfast: those who eat it and those who don’t. While some in the latter camp staunchly deny the need for breakfast, others may skip it for lack of time or energy to make it or to save a few calories. A new study out this week has found that skipping breakfast is a bad way to save calories since doing so may increase your cravings for food later in the day.

The researchers decided to study breakfast’s effects on weight and the brain after observing an increasing trend toward skipping breakfast in teenagers who, like the rest of the nation, are also becoming increasingly obese. Hypothesizing that both having breakfast and the composition of breakfast may change the way the brain responds to food, they decided to look at a brain chemical called dopamine that’s involved in reward and food cravings.

The researchers gathered a group of 16 young overweight women between 13 and 20, who they randomly assigned to skip breakfast, eat a normal breakfast or eat a breakfast high in protein. They followed the diet for six days and then came in for testing on the seventh. Researchers then measured a chemical called homovanillic acid (HVA) in their urine, which is a chemical produced by the breakdown of dopamine. If dopamine levels are higher in the blood, HVA should also be higher in the urine. The authors also asked participants over the course of the seventh day to rate their cravings for sweet and savory foods.

The researchers found that those who ate breakfast saw a decrease in their cravings for sweet and savory foods, while those who didn’t eat breakfast unsurprisingly continued to have these cravings. The decrease in cravings was associated with a rise in HVA in the urine of breakfast eaters, whose brains were presumably responding to the consumption of food.

Interestingly, high-protein breakfasts led to a much more dramatic decrease in craving for savory foods than regular breakfasts. This was reflected by higher amounts of HVA in the urine, perhaps indicating that these breakfasts were more satisfying. The researchers also point out that a component of protein present in the food is needed for making dopamine, so having a high-protein breakfast could rev up the production of this brain chemical.

This finding adds to a growing body of research that skipping breakfast may have unintended consequences later in the day. The same group of researchers also found that teens that skipped breakfast are hungrier and less satisfied after eating something in the morning, which actually led to increased calorie intake. This has correlated with another study that took MRIs of breakfast-skipping brains and found increased activation in areas that motivated eating and increase the reward associated with eating.