The calories-in, calories-out approach to weight loss makes skipping meals seem like a no-brainer solution. After all, a skipped meal means skipped calories, which means weight loss, right? Unfortunately, the equation is not always that straightforward, and the negative impacts of skipping meals on overall health may make many think twice about forgoing their next meal.
The evidence among the scientific community regarding the impact skipping meals has on the body in the short term and long term is conflicting. The bottom line is that how you skip meals and the amount you eat at your next meal will determine the overall impact on your weight loss goals and on your overall health.
Following a strict regimen of skipping meals, sometimes called "intermittent fasting", may be beneficial to a person's health. Researchers have found that overweight individuals who alternated days of normal meal consumption with days of less meals exhibited lower cholesterol levels, lower markers of inflammation, reduced markets of oxidative stressed and increased levels of various antioxidants. This study suggested that skipping meals could actually help you lose weight, but only if you are able to adhere to the regimen without overloading after a skipped meal.
More often than not, those who skip meals throughout the day make up for those lost calories by eating larger meals in a later sitting. The impact of this eating pattern on the body may be different from those who skip meals but do not make up for the lost calories later. In particular, skipping meals tends to cause cravings for foods high in fat and sugar. Essentially, when your body believes it's starving, it will crave foods that pack more calories per volume to supply the energy you need to be alert and active. One study in "Metabolism" found that when people skipped meals throughout the day, but ultimately ended up consuming greater amounts of food at later meals, they were at a greater risk for some dangerous metabolic changes. These included weight gain, elevated fasting glucose and a delayed insulin response - all three dangerous precursors to diabetes.
While many diets can produce short-term weight loss, most fail to result in a long-lasting impact. In particular, skipping meals and restricting intake will, perhaps unintentionally, encourage extreme behavior such as binging. Repeated cycles of restricting and binging can reinforce unhealthy eating, and can ultimately lead to disordered eating practices. While intermittent fasting may prove useful in some scenarios, there is no magic bullet for weight loss. Instead of languishing with a growling stomach, listen to and obey your body's natural hunger and fullness cues. Develop a healthy eating plan that will work for you and will be easy to maintain to ensure your future success in your weight loss endeavors.
Sarah Dreifke is a freelance writer based in DeKalb, IL with a passion for nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease. She holds a Bachelor of Science in both Dietetics and Life Sciences Communication from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Currently, she is working towards a combined Master's Degree in Nutrition and Dietetics as well as a dietetic internship at Northern Illinois University.