Dietitian Debunk Weight Loss Myths
By Melissa Harlow
“Skipping a meal will help you lose weight” Fact or Myth?
Many people think that skipping breakfast or lunch will lead to faster weight loss. While eating less can decrease the total amount of calorie intake for the day, and potentially lead to weight loss, many factors must also be considered.
Regularly skipping meals can negatively impact our health and manifest both physically and mentally. Whether you are on the intermittent fasting bandwagon or tend to work through lunch or skip dinner to “save up” for another meal,” the ongoing lack of nutrition can take a toll on the body.
So, what exactly happens to your body when you skip meals? Let’s dig deeper.
Blood Sugar Fluctuations
The food you eat has a direct correlation to your energy levels. Whether you eat too much at once or don’t eat at all, your blood sugar levels can swing up or down causing adverse side effects. In the case of not eating after an extended period of time, your blood sugar levels drop low enough that feelings of fatigue, lightheadedness, and irritability occur. This is referred to as hypoglycemia. Your body can even start to produce more cortisol, the stress hormone in response to low blood sugar.
Think about how you feel on the days you work through lunch, or have to rush out the door in the morning and forget to pack breakfast. After skipping a meal, many find that by the time they are finally able to eat, they are more likely to overeat due to feeling so “hangry” from the missed meal. As a result of low blood sugar and elevated cortisol, strong cravings occur.
These cravings tend to be for foods high in simple carbs and sugar that will provide short bursts of energy that the body has been searching for. This is further demonstrated in a recent study where individuals who have rapid changes in blood sugar, such as hypoglycemia, develop intense cravings for high-calorie foods when compared to those who have better blood glucose control. For many, the initial calorie deficit that may have occurred from missing a meal is quickly made up for with the consumption of sugary-rich foods later on sabotaging weight loss efforts.
While it is normal for blood sugar levels to change throughout the day based on what we eat, our stress levels, sleep quality, exercise intensity, and more, in order to prevent major spikes and falls, eating a balanced meal of protein, fats, and carbs every 3-4 hours is recommended. This is a good rule of thumb for most people, even those without diabetes in order to maintain energy, and satiety and stabilize blood sugar levels.
When meals are regularly skipped our hunger hormones leptin and ghrelin become unbalanced. Leptin is the hormone produced by fat cells that signals to the brain there is enough energy and you are full. While ghrelin is the hunger hormone secreted by the stomach that signals to the brain that the stomach is empty and to continue to eat.
Hunger is part of a negative feedback loop, which means the only way to reduce feelings of hunger is to eat. Studies show that skipping meals causes the body to produce excess levels of ghrelin which stimulates appetite and can lead to overeating. So, while those skipping meals may believe they are reducing their caloric intake and stimulating weight loss, when our hunger hormones become skewed, overeating occurs. More frequent episodes of overeating lead to excess caloric intake that gets stored as fat. This further highlights the importance of eating regularly throughout the day rather than skipping meals to ultimately end up overconsuming.
At a certain point regularly skipping meals can move into dangerous territory. The ongoing restriction around food intake not only brings along physical side effects but mental side effects as well. Skipping meals on a regular basis can indicate an eating disorder, especially if accompanied by other behaviors such as over-exercising, binging or preoccupation with food and weight. What might have started with the intention of shedding a few pounds can lead to a harmful and unhealthy relationship with food. If this is you or someone you know, it is important to seek professional help.
Decreased Diet Quality
A recent study surveyed adults who skipped breakfast and or lunch to assess the quality of their diet. It was found that adults who skipped breakfast and or lunch had a reduced intake of fruit, vegetables, grains, and dairy products. Another study was conducted on teenagers, 14-19 years of age to assess the eating habits of those who regularly skipped meals versus those who did not. The study found a parallelism between daily consumption of meals and healthier eating patterns. Therefore, those who adopt a balanced cadence of eating throughout the day instead of skipping meals have an improved diet quality of protein, fruit, vegetables, grains, and less added sugar.
Overall, it is important to adequately fuel your body throughout the day in order to maintain blood sugar levels, avoid overeating, improve energy, meet nutritional needs, tap into your hunger and fullness cues, and more. While an occasional skipped meal may be out of our control, in order to best support your health, avoid letting it become a habit. If you know you’re going to be on the go or in back-to-back meetings, be mindful of packing a nutrient-dense snack such as nuts, yogurt, or turkey jerky. Better yet, enlist professional help and work with a Registered Dietitian to understand your nutritional needs and eating patterns to optimize your health today!