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How to Suppress Hunger
Vigorous exercise is known to reduce appetite, at least during and immediately after exercising, but what we don't know for sure is why. Researchers have looked at various hormones (known as "gut hormones") associated with appetite regulation and there does appear to be a difference in the effects of different types of exercise on these appetite-regulating hormones. But does that actually translate to an effect on appetite, and is it different for different types of exercise?
Morning Exercise and Breakfast
Some of my more exercise-dedicated patients like to hit the gym or go for a run in the morning, before work, but quite a few of them don't eat beforehand. "I don't have time," they say. Many of them will have some kind of breakfast after they get to work: the more health-conscious might have some microwave oatmeal or a breakfast bar, while others throw themselves into their day and don't eat anything significant until lunch.
Lose More Weight with a Big Breakfast
I've said for years that breakfast really is the most important meal of the day. Skipping breakfast appears to reduce your metabolism while actually delaying fat burning and increasing fat deposition. Having a higher-fiber breakfast of quickbreads or cereal not only helps you remain satisfied for longer, you'll eat your other meals more regularly throughout the day. We also know that those who eat breakfast tend to snack more sensibly, have better cholesterol scores, and have better insulin response than those who usually skip breakfast.
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I get asked all the time about whether certain eating patterns will result in weight loss. Skip breakfast? Eat breakfast? Eat every three hours? What about alcohol - will it really stop me from losing weight? These are all theories that are reported in the popular press and it seems that most people take them to be true.
The truth is that there is little good research to support any of those theories. Fortunately, a team at Bowling Green State University in Ohio recently published a study to find out if skipping meals or drinking alcohol had any effect on weight loss (Appetite 2008;51(3):538-545).
Forty-four overweight or obese men and women volunteered to participate in a fourteen-week weight loss study. All of the volunteers received a weight loss program manual, an electronic device to track how many calories they burned in a day, and instructions on electronically tracking and reporting their daily food intake and exercise. Half of the participants received additional face to face counseling and weekly telephone follow-up sessions, but all of them were instructed to work toward the goal of burning at least 500 calories more than they consumed each day.
At the end of the fourteen-week program, the researchers were able to analyze each subject's daily meals and snacks and compare them to how much the subject exercised that day. Further, they could compare those days that a volunteer skipped meals with days that they did not, and they could also see whether alcohol intake affected caloric intake or exercise.
Contrary to one popular belief, skipping breakfast did not necessarily mean eating more calories later in the day. Overall, skipping meals actually meant eating fewer calories. However, on those days that volunteers skipped meals, they also exercised less. And the weekly weigh-ins showed that skipping meals had no effect on how much weight the subject lost.
Similarly, those subjects who drank alcohol at all tended to exercise more on those days they consumed than on days that they did not. Again, drinking alcohol seemed to have no effect on the weekly weigh-ins and overall weight loss.
The trouble, of course, is that since the volunteers had been instructed to consume 500 calories per day less than they burned, it's quite possible that skipping meals or drinking alcohol was compensated for by varying their amount of exercise.
One of the conclusions of this study is that it's unlikely that particular patterns of eating will have much effect on weight loss. But the really important conclusion is the continued importance of the very simple rule that weight loss means calories in must be less than calories out.
First posted: October 22, 2008