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Most of us know that losing weight is a matter of calories in versus calories out. To shed excess pounds, the equation is simple: Eat less and move more. But according to a new study in the journal Obesity, there's more to weight loss than total calories: when you eat your calories matters, too.

It seems the best formula for losing weight – and warding off type 2 diabetes and heart disease – is to breakfast like a king and dine like a pauper.

For the study, 93 overweight women with metabolic syndrome where assigned a 1,400-calorie weight-loss diet for 12 weeks. Half the women ate a high-calorie breakfast (700), then 500 calories at lunch and 200 at dinner. The other group consumed a 200-calorie breakfast, a 500-calorie lunch and a 700-calorie dinner.

Metabolic syndrome is a combination of risk factors that doubles the risk of heart attack and increases the likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes by fivefold. A person is thought to have metabolic syndrome if he or she has three or more of the following: a large waist circumference, high blood triglycerides, low HDL (good) cholesterol, high blood pressure and elevated fasting blood glucose.

Over 12 weeks, women in both groups lost weight. However, compared to the big dinner eaters, women who ate a 700-calorie breakfast and 200-calorie dinner experienced a 2.5-fold greater weight loss (19 pounds versus eight). As well, waist circumference, blood glucose and insulin levels improved to a greater extent in the high calorie breakfast group. Blood triglycerides levels fell 33 per cent in the big breakfast group, but increased in the big dinner group.

Women who ate half their daily calories at breakfast also reported feeling less hungry during the day, making it easier to stick to their meal plan. The lower hunger scores were paralleled by lower blood levels of ghrelin – a hunger hormone – after the eating the high-calorie breakfast.

Meal timing is thought to affect the body's circadian rhythm, which is tightly linked to metabolism and insulin activity. Eating a large meal late in the day may disrupt the circadian clock and lead to obesity. It's also been shown that the body burns significantly more calories to digest, absorb and process a morning meal than it does an afternoon or evening meal.

This isn't the first study to find a strong connection between meal timing and body weight. Research published earlier this year found that eating in the morning was most important for an optimal metabolism and preventing abdominal obesity.

While it may seem impractical to make breakfast, rather than dinner, the largest meal of the day, it certainly appears to be more beneficial for losing weight, suppressing hunger, lowering blood sugar and improving how the body uses insulin.

The following tips will help you plan a breakfast that can stave off hunger and cravings during the day – and eat a snack-sized dinner.

Power up with protein

Adding protein to breakfast slows digestion and promotes a feeling of fullness throughout the morning. Studies suggest protein-rich solid foods curb appetite better than protein-rich drinks. Breakfast foods high in protein include egg whites, cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, regular yogurt, low fat milk, turkey breast, smoked salmon and tofu.

Add healthy carbohydrates

Eating carbohydrate-rich foods such as whole grains and fruit at the morning meal fuels your brain and muscles. Research also suggests that carbohydrate at breakfast is important to help guard against abdominal obesity. Quickly digested carbohydrate foods with a high glycemic index (GI) – e.g. white bread, refined cereals, pastries – are less effective at promoting weight loss because they spike blood sugar and insulin, which can trigger hunger and inhibit the breakdown of body fat.

Foods with a low GI release sugar more slowly into the bloodstream and don't produce an outpouring of insulin. Low GI breakfast foods include grainy breads, steel cut and large flake oats, 100 per cent bran cereal, oat bran, apples, citrus fruit, grapes, pears, nuts, milk, yogurt and soy beverages.

Focus on fibre

Include 5 to 10 grams of fibre at breakfast. Like protein, fibre slows digestion and helps keep you feeling full longer after eating. Choose 100 per cent whole-grain breads, breakfast cereals with at least five grams of fibre a serving, and eat whole fruit instead of drinking juice.

Satisfy your sweet tooth

Adding something sweet at breakfast – a square of dark chocolate, a cookie or candy – has been shown to cut sweet cravings later in the day by preventing spikes in serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical.

Keep dinner small

To make dinner the lightest meal of the day, include 3 to 4 ounces of low fat protein such as chicken or turkey breast, lean meat, egg whites or firm tofu. Fill up on plenty of vegetables rather than starchy foods.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen Thursdays at noon on CTV News Channel's Direct.

Example meal plan:

Big Breakfast (700 calories, 54 grams protein)

Whole-wheat bread, 2 slices

Light tuna in water, 4 ounces

Skim milk, 16 ounces

Tomato, basil and mozzarella salad

Milk chocolate, 1 bar


Lunch (500 calories, 60 grams protein)

Grilled chicken breast, 5 ounces

Melon, 1 cup

Light mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon

Beef broth soup, 2 cups

Green salad with balsamic vinaigrette, 1 cup

Light Dinner (200 calories, 35 grams protein)

Scrambled egg whites, 2

Turkey breast, 5 slices