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Top MD: Easy Big-Breakfast Hack Helps Fight Diabetes and Boost Weight Loss After Age 50

It worked for Phoebe Martinson, 59: “I wish someone had told me in my 30s it was possible to feel this good."

For millions of us, mornings are super-busy and we’re just not that hungry, so we tend to skip or skimp on breakfast. Sometimes we’ll even eat a light lunch, saving up our calories or carbs for a big dinner after the day quiets down. It’s an eating pattern tailor-made to modern living. The hitch: Growing research suggests it’s out of sync with the body’s ancient hormonal rhythms and can cause or worsen weight gain and other health issues. So more and more experts now recommend a hearty, carb-rich breakfast plus a moderate lunch and light lower-carb dinner. Does a big breakfast for weight loss really work? There’s strong evidence the answer is yes. In one study led by Tel Aviv University’s Daniela Jakubowicz, MD, a big breakfast triggered biochemical shifts that helped folks lower risk of diabetes and slim down exponentially faster than normal.

And for more proof a big breakfast is great for weight loss, we talked to Washington state pastry chef Phoebe Martinson. She says the strategy helped erase her sugar cravings, relieve chronic pain and finally end a lifelong diet struggle. She shed 150 pounds at age 59. Read on for more of Phoebe’s story — and to find our how you can tap into the power of a big breakfast for weight loss.  

The advantage of eating a big breakfast for weight loss

Hormones are chemical messengers our endocrine glands send out to help different body systems do their jobs. And daybreak is Mother Nature’s alarm clock, prompting endocrine glands to release a flood of compounds to help us wake up and get ready for the day. One recent study found breakfast eaters cut risk of deadly heart attacks by 87% — likely because the meal promotes a healthier hormonal balance. There are also distinct advantages in terms of weight loss: “In the morning, we have naturally elevated levels of hormones that help transform food into energy,” explains Dr. Jakubowicz. She adds that these hormones also keep carbs from spiking blood sugar too high and make carbs more likely to burn off in the morning than at night.

In one clinical test, diabetics were given 1,500 calories either in a traditional way (with more carbs and calories at night) or as a carb-rich 700-calorie breakfast plus a low-carb 600-calorie lunch and 200-calorie dinner. Comparing the groups, the big-breakfast eaters saw their blood sugar drop by 50%, hunger come down by 700% and carb cravings slashed by 900%. They also lost 10.4 times more weight. “A slice of bread at breakfast is less fattening than an identical slice of bread consumed in the evening,” says Dr. Jakubowicz.

How a big breakfast kills appetite hours later

It doesn’t seem like a morning meal could really reduce our urges to eat all day long, even before bedtime. But, as it turns out, certain foods have superpowers when eaten in the morning hours — a little advantage likely left over from caveman days, allowing us to rest without discomfort once it’s too dark to hunt or forage. For example, “proteins eaten in the morning are broken down in a way that maintains steady blood-sugar levels for many hours and essentially controls hunger for the rest of the day,” Dr. Jakubowicz shares.

Related: Top Nutrition Scientist: Adding Extra Protein To Your First Meal of the Day is The *Best* Way to Fire Up Metabolism

It’s also been proven, Dr. Jakubowicz adds, that starches and sweets eaten at daybreak keep a feel-good brain chemical called serotonin elevated throughout the day. That’s a good thing, since an afternoon serotonin crash is a common cause of strong cravings for sweets and other carbs after 4 p.m. “When you eat starch or sweets in the morning, the attraction to sweets in the afternoon is reduced,” she promises. “The urge to eat carbs in diminished overall.” So the key is to make sure your big breakfast includes a nice dose of both protein and carbs for the biggest benefits.  Fun fact: Some of Dr. Jakubowicz’s studies have even allowed test subjects to eat cake as part of their big breakfast and they still lost significantly more than folks on a more traditional diet.

Related: A Serotonin Deficiency Makes You Feel Moody and Tired — Here’s How To Fix It

Why a big breakfast for weight loss helps improve blood sugar

Normally, eating carbs can be tricky for dieters since they turn to blood sugar and trigger release of insulin, a hormone that’s very quick to stuff excess blood sugar in our fat cells. On top of that, excess insulin also blocks our ability to burn stored fat. A big breakfast helps prevent these issues.  “Eating carbs at breakfast is the perfect solution because it meets your body’s need for carbs but does so during the only time of day when insulin is more likely to lead starches to the muscles to be burned for energy rather than stored as fat,” says Dr. Jakubowicz. Skimp on carbs later in the day because “after dusk, insulin transforms carbs into fat.”

Proof a big breakfast works for weight loss after age 50  

Everyone in Dr. Jakubowicz’s study was at least 60, and the average age was 69. The average participant shed 12 pounds in 12 weeks, while the traditional diet group lost no more than ⅔ of a pound — and most ultimately gained weight. “The results were striking,” Dr. Jakubowicz noted.

It’s a discovery fitness pros have made outside a research lab too. When Phoebe Martinson had a premonition she would die at age 62 like her dad did, the 59-year-old booked an appointment with a trainer named Saundra at a gym down the street. Saundra not only had Phoebe begin to increase her daily exercise, she urged her to switch to a big breakfast, a medium-sized lunch and a small dinner. The results were astonishing.

Big breakfast before and after: Phoebe Martinson, 59

Before and after images of Phoebe Martinson who Lost 150 LBS with the help of big breakfast for weight loss
Brooke Fitts

When Phoebe Martinson and her husband, Dan, bought new recliners for their Washington state home, Phoebe started having flashbacks to her recliner-loving dad’s final days. He was a great guy, but he hadn’t taken great care of his health. And “one day he went to take a nap and never woke up,” recalls the pastry chef. “I just started to have an scary sense that the same thing would happen to me if I didn’t make changes.”

Despite years of avoiding doctors like the plague, Phoebe knew she was in awful shape. Everything hurt, she had zero energy and she carried over 100 extra pounds. She often overindulged in cookies and cake scraps at her cafes, and even at home, she managed to go overboard. She’d always loved food, had always been big and had mostly been happy. After a couple of failed tries at Weight Watchers, she stopped thinking about her size. Then, suddenly, things changed. “I didn’t want to die young,” she shares.

Phoebe emailed the trainer who had helped her friend get in shape. Phoebe typed: Saundra, I’m writing to you because I’m an old lady, I’m miserable and I need help.

Big breakfast for weight loss: Phoebe’s journey begins

Phoebe walked into the gym less than 24 hours later. After a brief chat about Phoebe’s health and goals, they began range-of-motion and endurance tests. She could barely bend over. Her squats were a joke. “Why don’t you run in place?” said Saundra. Minutes later, Phoebe was sweaty, red-faced, unable to go on.

“Okay,” said Saundra. “Now I know your starting point. I can give you a plan for the week.” Phoebe’s goal was to do some form of exercise six days a week. She could walk outside, hit the gym, use online strength workouts. She dove, often unsure if she was doing moves correctly. “I wasn’t perfect, but I wasn’t giving up,” she recalls.

At meals, Phoebe did her best. Instead of two cookies, she’d have one. She also gave up nightly cocktails, which often led to mindless snacking. After three months, she found herself calling her grown sons, Jake and Thomas. “I lost 30 pounds!” she told them, shedding tears of joy.

All along, Saundra had been urging Phoebe to phase out processed junk and get more protein through the day. Phoebe tried, but there was room for improvement. Like many of us, Phoebe tended to skip breakfast and load up in the afternoon and evening. Now Saundra encouraged her to try the opposite. “I’m not giving you strict menus, just guidelines,” she added.

Phoebe would switch to a big breakfast, a medium-sized lunch and a small dinner. Carbs weren’t off limits, but Saundra suggested eating them earlier in the day, which works better with the body’s natural rhythms and helps boost metabolism. “I can try it,” Phoebe said.

Big breakfast for weight loss in the real world

Right away, she began flipping her old way of eating upside down. Morning meals were hearty and might include eggs, sweet potato, quinoa, spinach, fruit, even toast. Midmorning snacks could be nuts, fruit or veggies, a protein bar, popcorn. Lunch was often a huge salad with chicken or fish, avocado, Skinnygirl dressing. If she needed a boost, she’d sip a smoothie. Dinner would be her smallest meal, typically roasted veggies and a little protein. “I have energy and feel full almost all the time,” she told her friend Maddie. “Plus my cravings for donuts are going away.”

In nine months, Phoebe was down 100 pounds. Gradually she shed 50 more, even as she taste-tested new recipes and appeared on Food Network’s Halloween Baking Championship. Does she constantly feel tempted to binge on sweets? Nope. Big-breakfast eating helped erase the urge; she craves food that makes her feel invigorated. “I still love sugar, but it doesn’t have a hold over me,” shares Phoebe, 59. “I wish someone had told me in my 30s it was possible to feel this good. Now I want to say to everyone: It’s not too late. Start today, just as you are. It’s so worth it. You are worth it!” For more inspiration, follow @Phoebe.Gets.Fit on Instagram.

How to use a big breakfast for weight loss

To use an approach similar to ones tested by both Phoebe and Dr. Jakubowicz, make breakfast your biggest meal (with protein, veggies, good fat, starch and/or fruit), enjoy a medium-sized lunch with an optional small serving carbs, and have a small low-carb dinner. A free app like MyFitnessPal or CarbManager can help to keep portions and overall nutrition healthy. For best results, focus on unprocessed fare.

Sample big breakfast

Fill a plate with eggs, any style, a baked sweet potato and steamed veggies with a drizzle of olive oil, a serving fruit and optional avocado.

Sample medium lunch

Top a big salad with chicken, cheese or any lean protein; add a serving of healthy fat and an optional serving of starch or fruit.

Sample light dinner

Go for a small serving of salmon or any healthy protein; serve with steamed or roasted veggies drizzled with lite dressing.

Bonus recipe: Blender Banana Muffins

big breakfast for weight loss: Banana muffins with oat flakes on the table
minadezhda/Getty

Worried you’re too busy for big breakfast? This recipe is easy, delicious and make-ahead. Just enjoy two muffins and a protein shake as a fun and no-stress morning meal. Makes 12 muffins

Ingredients

  • 2 cups oats
  • 4 ripe bananas
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup allulose or 6 Tbs. honey
  • 1 tsp. baking soda
  • pinch salt
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts

Instructions

  1. In blender, blitz all ingredients but nuts to form a smooth batter.
  2. Fold in nuts. You can do this in the blender using a rubber spatula.
  3. Spoon batter into a greased or lined muffin tin. Bake at 350ºF until pick in the center of a test muffin comes out clean, about 15 minutes.

Click through for more on losing weight after age 50:

It’s Easy to Turn This 2-Ingredient Dough Into Protein-Packed Bagels and Donuts — And Science Says It Can Boost Weight Loss

Galveston Diet: MD’s Own Cure for Menopause Weight Gain Is Helping Women Over 50 Lose Stubborn Fat

Proffee: The Delicious Breakfast Helping Women Over 60 Lose Weight Effortlessly

A version of this article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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