Last week I got together with my three best friends from high school. We all try to connect on each other’s birthdays and so that we are guaranteed to catch up at least four times a year. We usually meet around happy hour/dinner time at a local restaurant in the town where we all grew up. It is always so fun! But as we age, all of the typical discussions regarding how our lives have changed come up, and mostly we laugh a lot!
But this time one of my friends looked absolutely exhausted. She had not slept well the night before and also had not eaten anything all day! It struck me that every time we have gotten together, she is famished because this has been the habit she has gotten into (she us such a caring person that she tends to focus on her family, her family’s restaurant, her own business and never takes time for herself).
I am not one to lecture anyone about their eating habits, but if someone asks me something, I will answer. “Aren’t I burning fat?” she asked. As with most middle aged women, we do gain some weight and the typical person tries to lose it. I then explained how our bodies react to starvation, and not only was it not supportive of promoting a person’s genetically determined body weight, it also could be dangerous at worst, or make you feel crappy (like she was feeling!) at best. Anyway, because so many people are under the misconception that skipping meals is a good way to lose weight, I thought I would write about it.
There are probably lots more reasons (such as the obvious fact that it is next to impossible to meet your nutritional needs by skipping meals), but here are my top 5:
- It backfires. Almost everyone has had the experience of not eating enough during the day for one reason or another. Most of the time, dieters do it on purpose, others may just be too busy and not realize several hours has gone by and they missed a meal. The result is the same: a drive to overeat. If you have read any of my previous posts, you know that our appetite and hunger level is intricately tied to numerous regulators. When we do not consume enough calories/energy during the day, we will make up for it. Some make up for it by just automatically listening to their body and eating a very large meal because they are overly hungry! And they feel much better after eating that big meal. Others (dieters/restrained eaters) often feel very guilty when they compensate for not eating enough by eating a big meal, and then binge eat because they feel so bad.
- You burn muscle and consequently lower your metabolism. Unfortunately, contrary to what my friend and most people think, you do NOT burn all fat when you skip meals. When we don’t eat for a long period of time, our body has three options to get some energy: protein (from our muscles), carbohydrate in the form of glucose or stored glycogen (we don’t have much energy here, just a few hundred calories, unless you are a trained athlete and your stores may have an increased capacity, but most of us are not trained athletes!), and fat (in our fat stores). Also unfortunately for those trying to lose weight by meal skipping, our bodies draw from all of these forms of storage and eventually may even prefer amino acids (which it can get readily from our muscles). What most people do know is that muscle “burns more than fat” and that is why people who have more muscle need more calories. So what happens when you skip meals and need to burn up some muscle for energy? The next day, with even a fraction less lean muscle, you burn less. Over time, this can have a big negative affect on your metabolism. In extreme situations such as in those with eating disorders who have starved and restricted for a long time, the heart muscle can actually atrophy, causing dangerous health repercussions. The only way to find out if heart damage has occurred is with an echo cardiogram which is expensive. Most patients get an electrocardiogram which may be normal but does not mean damage has not occurred.
- It may increase belly fat and contribute to insulin resistance. A recent study (May 2015) conducted at Ohio State University revealed that skipping meals not only leads to abdominal weight gain, but it can also lead to the development of insulin resistance in the liver. If youskip meals you might set your body up for larger fluctuations in insulin and blood sugar. The result is more fat gain instead of fat loss. Find the original article in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, July 2015, Volume 26, Issue 7, Pages 721–728 and for a summary of the research results see CBC News Article on Skipping Meals and Belly Fat.
- You wreak havoc with your digestive system. One of the biggest complaints I get from people who skip meals is constipation. We all have experienced that uncomfortable feeling at times when maybe we have traveled and our bodies get off track, or we have been ill or maybe ate too much chocolate! It is not a fun feeling, but can you imagine having to feel this way on a regular basis? In addition to constipation, lots of people who skip meals and then eat tend to complain of feeling bloated and gassy, or even having stomach pains. Our bodies just simply like to be in a regular rhythm of eating. Our digestive enzymes get used to helping us digest our meals at regular intervals. When we start to skip meals, eventually these enzymes decrease so we even may stop feeling hungry (many of my patients will ask “why should I eat lunch if I am not hungry? I thought I am supposed to “listen” to my body!” Well, if you have been skipping meals on a regular basis, this is the one time I will say don’t listen to your body because it has been derailed. If this has happened to you then start by adding in a small meal (maybe half a sandwich) and build up to a normal lunch over time. Eventually you will start feeling hungry again and this indicates your body’s metabolism as well as digestive system is getting back to normal. Of course there are other contributors to constipation and digestive issues (food intolerance, inadequate fluid intake, not enough fiber) but going long periods without putting something in your digestive system is not going to help.
- You just plain won’t feel good. Finally, when you don’t provide your body and brain with the fuel it needs, you just are not going to be in a good mood. You will likely drag, be unable to focus, get grouchy more easily and just simply not be that fun to be with! I have found that most people do not even realize how crappy they feel when they do not eat enough during the day. When they begin to add in breakfast and lunch they are often amazed at how good they feel and how much more energy they have. If I had a dollar for every person that has said “wow, I feel so much better! I didn’t even realize how bad I felt!” I might not be having the time to write this blog because I would be retired and relaxing on my favorite beach on Keewaydin Island.
Just to be clear, I am not promoting weight loss, but instead I am hoping those of you who are always trying to lose weight will stop skipping meals. Why not think about working on a healthier lifestyle instead so that you feel good and can enjoy life. And that involves eating your three meals a day.
Three square meals a day. Funny how good sound advice never seems to change.