When your doctor or nutritionist says, “Cutting calories is the best way to lose weight,” it is easy to convince yourself that skipping breakfast or working through lunch is the way to go. But beware – according to health experts, skipping meals is not a safe or healthy way to shed pounds. In fact, some of the consequences of skipping meals can include blood sugar imbalances, decreased metabolism and even weight gain over the long-term.
To understand these consequences, let’s talk first about food and digestion and how they relate to metabolism. When your body digests food, some of it is stored as fat, while other parts of it enter your bloodstream as sugar, providing you with instant energy. If the meal is a balanced source of fiber and protein, you will continue to feel energized over the next few hours as the food continues to be digested. Eventually though, the energy, or calories, from that meal will be used up and you will feel your energy deplete as your blood sugar begins to drop. This wreaks havoc with the insulin balance in your body leaving you feeling sluggish, tired, and unfocused. Chronically skipping meals may set you up for developing metabolic syndrome, hypoglycemia (chronic low-blood sugar) or even diabetes, in the long run (1).
Skipping meals can be especially harmful for diabetics who are extra-sensitive to sugar highs and lows. Therefore, if you have diabetes, it is critical to have a healthy snack available at all times to avoid dangerous lulls in blood sugar (see tips below).
You typically skip meals for two main reasons. Either you have a hectic schedule and don't have enough time to grab a quick snack, or you are trying to lose weight. If you are trying to lose weight, you actually may be sabotaging yourself by skipping meals. When you eat, your metabolism works to break the food down into smaller, usable parts. When you skip a meal, your metabolism has nothing to do. In a way, your metabolism is like a muscle. You must use it, or you will lose it. It's actually not that cut and dry but, when your metabolism does not have to work to break down food, it does begin to slow down. Then the next time you eat, your metabolism is not as responsive and, as a result, more and more of the food is stored as fat. Therefore, in order to maintain a healthy weight (or even lose weight), it is essential that you eat regularly throughout the day. Recent research has found that 3 to 6 small, regularly timed meals eaten over the course of a day works best when trying to maintain a healthy weight (3).
It’s easy to see that when you don’t eat regularly, your metabolic rate will slow down as your body conserves energy and stores fat. Many people who skip meals tend to overeat later in the day. Skipping meals and binge eating afterwards disrupts your insulin response leading to metabolic syndrome and weight gain.
Extending time between meals can also make it more difficult to control your cravings. We've all been victim to low blood sugar– it is all but impossible to make healthy choices and control portions when your belly, head and taste buds are all screaming for food. To avoid the "sugar blues" you should strive to keep your blood sugar levels stable with nutritious, fiber- or protein- rich food throughout the day.
If you cannot avoid skipping meals because of your work or other responsibilities, keep healthy snacks handy to avoid hunger. Here are some healthy, calorie-dense snacks you can easily keep on hand:
Skipping a meal every now and again won't do permanent damage. Overcompensating later with calories can impair weight-loss, however. If, like all of us at times, you must skip a meal, be sure to continue to exercise portion control at other meals.
In addition to choosing healthful, energy-boosting snacks, be sure to take a few minutes to practice mindful eating. Eating in front of the TV, at your desk, or quickly in the car will not give you the same satisfaction and feeling of fullness as focusing your full attention on your food. Try instead to eat at a table, chew slowly and appreciate the different flavors and textures of your food.
While the jury is still out on whether skipping breakfast has a negative impact on weight-loss, last year a study found that skipping breakfast was linked to coronary heart disease due to a rise in risk factors including “increases in diastolic and systolic blood pressure, blood concentrations of insulin, triglycerides, free fatty acids and LDL-cholesterol, and to decreases in blood concentrations of HDL-cholesterol,” according to study author Leah Cahill (4).
Always Have a Plan for what you will eat throughout the week. Shopping on Saturdays and preparing your meals and snacks on Sundays can help you to stay ahead of the curve. There are so many advantages to meal planning besides avoiding dangerous blood sugar lulls during the week. The most significant one, in my opinion, is that you can save money by avoiding expensive restaurant indulgences or succumbing to impulse buying.
If you have difficulty planning on your own, consider trying a prepared meal plan. A recent study found that 3 times as many people lost weight when following a prepared meal plan versus following dieting guidelines themselves (5).
If you find that you are skipping meals more than every now and then, it is important to consider the long-term effects of this behavior on blood sugar, metabolism and healthy weight-maintenance. Incorporating even one of the healthy tips above can get you back on the right track.
Brandi is a Certified Health Coach at Diet-to-Go, based in Lorton, VA. Balance is the number one mission in Brandi’s life. In her spare time she loves to bike, do Zumba and play tennis, but hates gym exercise. She is an amateur gardener and nature walker, who is on the constant look out for interesting insects and small animals. Brandi encourages people to “find the sweetness in life.”