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The chocolate cake diet: Can dessert with breakfast really help you lose weight?

Published Feb. 9, 2012


If you're reading this at breakfast, it's our pleasure to bring you good tidings of great joy: You may eat cake.


Dig in. Have a cookie. Have some chocolate mousse or ice cream.


If that sounds insane, let us turn your attention to a counter-intuitive new study from a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University. They've stumbled onto some earthshaking evidence that suggests adding dessert to a balanced 600-calorie breakfast that includes proteins and carbohydrates can help dieters shed weight and keep it off in the long run.


Here's the skinny.


Researchers split 193 clinically obese, nondiabetic adults into two groups. The groups were assigned nearly identical low-carb diets of 1,400 calories a day for women and 1,600 calories a day for men, similar to the popular Atkins diet. But one group was given a low-carb 300-calorie breakfast and the other was given a 600-calorie breakfast that was high in protein and carbohydrates, and always included a dessert.


Weight loss was about equal for the two groups at 16 weeks. But after 32 weeks, those who added a cookie or cake or ice cream to breakfast had lost an average of 40 pounds more than those who ate the lighter, low-carb breakfast, according to the findings published in the journal Steroids.


Shocking, right? How on earth does that work?


We reached the lead researcher in Tel Aviv.


"What you eat for breakfast does not make you fat," said professor Daniela Jakubowicz, part of the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the Diabetes Unit at Wolfson Medical Center. She explained that breakfast provides energy for the day, revs the body's metabolism and aids brain function. What you consume early is fuel. If a low-calorie diet restricts carbohydrates at breakfast, metabolism goes down and the body makes compensatory changes that encourage weight gain if you eat carbohydrates later. And you will, because by lunchtime you'll be super hungry.


"Breakfast increases metabolism and decreases hunger," she said.


And adding the sweet to breakfast reduces the desire to eat the sweet later in the day.


Serotonin, a neurotransmitter popularly thought to be a contributor to feelings of happiness, is high in the morning but falls in the afternoon, she said. When you eat chocolate in the afternoon, serotonin increases and has an antidepressive effect; it makes you happier. That ups the likelihood that you'll reach for it the next afternoon when your serotonin levels drop.


That's what happened to the group eating the lower-carb breakfast, those who didn't eat a balanced breakfast with dessert. They craved sweets later in the day, when indulging is worse, and cheated on their diet.


"When serotonin goes down, you become sad and the chocolate makes you happy," she said. "It's like a vicious cycle."


So we should eat sweets in the morning?


"Chocolate in the morning maintains the serotonin levels during the day, so you don't feel depressed," Jakubowicz said. "When you think of the chocolate you ate in the morning, you don't remember that it made you happy because when you ate it your serotonin level was up. The dependence on the chocolate begins to decrease."


The study shows that the group that ate dessert at breakfast was far more successful at maintaining the diet in the long run.


We ran this by Dr. Denise Edwards, director of the Healthy Weight Clinic at the University of South Florida. She said the study made sense because people often fail at very restrictive diets and engage in "emotional eating," indulging in foods that give you pleasure. The best plan is one that strikes a balance, she said, so don't think you can just eat sweets and lose weight.


Word of the study has yet to spread throughout Tampa Bay, it seems.


Jeff Mount, president of Wright's Gourmet House in Tampa, said he sold 23,000 cakes last year, but it was rare to see anyone chowing down on his chocolate cake or Alpine cake in the dining room at breakfast.


"That behavior pattern of having dessert later in the day is so ingrained in us," he said. "I kind of subscribe to the belief that at the end of the day it's all about calories and managing them. I've grown to believe that what you eat and when you eat it plays a large role."


He says he's open to the idea.


"Maybe I'll try to eat a slice of chocolate cake in the morning for a week," he said. "I'll have my staff check in with you."


Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

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