We’ve all heard it before – it’s important to provide our bodies with proper nutrients in order to complete the daily tasks and physical activities in our day. Oftentimes I hear that individuals skip meals because they are trying to lose weight or because they simply just don’t have the time; However, research has shown that skipping meals have undesirable consequences to our health and most often to do not result in weight loss in the long run.
A recent study was published in the medical journal of Metabolism that observed what happens when individuals skip meals and then end up eating just as much as they would in a normal day when they finally do sit down to a meal. The study included healthy, normal-weight men and women in their 40s. For two months, the subjects ate three meals per day. For another two month period, they skipped two meals but ate the same number of calories in one evening meal (between 4 – 8pm).
Results showed that skipped meals during the day and eating one large meal in the evening resulted in potentially risky metabolic changes that included elevated fasting glucose and delayed insulin response. If these effects persisted long-term, they could lead to diabetes.
So…you ask, “how does this happen?” Here’s how: When you skip a single meal, the body goes into ‘fasting mode’ where carbohydrates, protein and fats are all used for energy. As this fasting phase continues, muscle glycogen storage depletes which causes glucose levels to drop. The body now begins to look for other sources of fuel and turns to protein tissues (muscles) to be broken down. If your goal is to ultimately build muscle, this is not a desirable effect. In order to try to conserve the remaining protein, the body will then start to metabolize fat for energy in the form of ketone bodies for energy – a process called ketosis. Overall, the body now begins to reduce energy output and lean tissues begin to become weak and perform less metabolic work. In addition, hormones also slow down metabolism in order to conserve lean body tissue – a process called ‘starvation mode’ which is often referred to as the body’s defense mechanism against starvation.
The consequences of skipping meals can include: decreased metabolic rate, weight gain, decrease in strength, decreased resistance to disease, decreased bone density, mood swings, as well as menstrual dysfunction in women and decreased testosterone levels in men.
Frequent meals are important to help counteract these negative effects. In addition, blood sugar is better regulated because there is almost a constant flow of food into the stomach, reducing the urge to binge eat. As a Registered Dietitian, I believe it’s crucial to stress the importance of establishing proper meal patterns and timing to my patients so as to help them obtain proper nutrition throughout the day. This will help to provide them with proper satiety, help to stabilize blood sugars, reduce mood swings and give them the energy to get through daily activities. Some strategies I often suggest include ensuring that they have adequate protein (3 ounces ) and vegetables at meals which should be spaced out every 4 hours or so. In addition, drinking 64 fluid ounces of very low calorie fluids and including 1-2 snacks per day that are not only low in sugar and carbohydrates but also high in fiber and protein. Examples of snack choices can include light yogurt, ½ banana, or a hard-boiled egg. Treat your body right and it will be able to do what it was made to do!
Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics
Muscle & Strength
American Council on Exercise