Eating a small, sweet treat with a high-protein breakfast may actually help you lose weight, according to a study published online in the December 2011 issue of Steroids. One reason a bit of cake in the a.m. can help you shed pounds? It seems to help control cravings for unhealthy foods later in the day, the researchers suggest.

“In a diet, the most important thing is control of appetite – the decrease of hunger and cravings,” explains study author Daniela Jakubowicz, MD, a visiting professor at Tel Aviv University in Israel. “To be successful and to protect against obesity in the long run, the diet has to decrease the forces of hunger and craving that encourage the weight regain.”

Dr. Jakubowicz and her team divided nearly 200 clinically obese adults into two groups. One group ate a 600-calorie breakfast high in protein, like tuna or turkey slices, along with carbs like two slices of bread, as well as a small dessert of 200 calories or less. The other group started each day with a 300 calorie, low-carbohydrate, low calorie breakfast.

Those who ate dessert with breakfast got less hungry and had fewer cravings throughout the day – and lost nearly 40 more pounds – than those who didn’t. “Halfway through the study, participants in both groups had lost an average of 33 pounds per person,” Dr. Jakubowicz explains. But in the second half of the study, researchers believe participants in the low-carbohydrate group felt deprived and were unable to maintain the strict diet in the long term because they regained an average of 22 pounds per person. In contrast, participants in the group with a larger breakfast and a sweet treat continued with their weight loss – losing another 15 pounds each.

But that doesn’t mean cake or ice cream in the morning is key to weight loss. Dr. Jakubowicz says dessert and other carbs may have suppressed cravings, but high amounts of protein played an essential role in reducing hunger.

Linda Antinoro, a registered dietitian and senior nutritionist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, is a bit skeptical about the science behind eating a sweet for breakfast – but agrees that the balance of protein and carbs probably made a difference.

“I think the bigger message is you do want to eat something in the morning to keep from overindulging later in the day,” Antinoro says. However, Antinoro thinks it would be unwise to advise people to eat a small dessert with breakfast. “Some [people] could take it the wrong way, not being moderate and not being careful elsewhere,” Antinoro explains.

She says the good news is that any carbohydrate can boost your serotonin levels. “Generally that helps with some of the carb cravings – but it might be short lived if you have refined carbs. You might not have that satisfaction and you might keep eating more carbs,” Antinoro says. “We encourage people to have more balanced carbs with fiber and staying power like whole-grain bread or crackers and fruit.”

If cravings do come later in the day – Antinoro says it could be a combo of psychological and biological factors. Maybe it’s become a habit to eat at that time of day. Or it could be your body’s way of saying you haven’t been giving it what it needs.

 “If you go a long time without eating you will be vulnerable to anything available,” Antinoro says. “To control cravings, eat a balanced composition of carbs and proteins. The fact is if you eat something in the morning and it has a composition of carb and protein it will help you as the day goes on.”