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5 Things That Happen to Your Body When You Skip Meals

Did another meeting run long? Ugh! Now you’ll have to skip lunch (again!) and head straight into your next meeting. The upside, at least, is that maybe skipping all these lunches will help you trim down, right? Maybe … or maybe not.

Working through lunch, skipping breakfast or joining in on the intermittent fasting bandwagon may seem like no big deal but it could take a toll on the human body.

Food helps power every system in your body, so it’s important to provide your body with proper nutrients. Having a regular, consistent meal schedule is important.

Before you head into another double-header day without noshing, grab yourself a healthy snack or lunch and find out what exactly happens to your body when you don’t eat enough. Plus get some tips to stay fully fueled throughout your day.

Five ways skipping meals can affect your body

Your blood sugar will drop.

Feeling rather hangry? When you don’t eat often enough in a day, you’ll experience a drop in blood sugar, or glucose, the main sugar found in your blood. 

Low blood sugar can make you feel tired, dizzy, sluggish, shaky and like you may pass out. You may even find it hard to concentrate because your brain doesn’t have the fuel it needs to think straight.

“The brain depends on glucose for fuel,” said Amanda Spina, a registered dietitian at Banner Health. “Glucose comes either directly from carbohydrate-containing foods and drinks or indirectly from glucose stores and glucose production in the liver. Your brain can use ketones, which are compounds created by the liver after breaking down fats, but your brain much prefers to get its energy from glucose.”

Skipping meals can be especially harmful to your health if you have health conditions like diabetes and take insulin or oral diabetes medications.

“For people with diabetes, skipping meals can lead to dangerously low blood sugar levels as their normal mechanisms for maintaining blood sugar are impaired, especially in the presence of certain medications like insulin and sulfonylureas,” Spina said. “It can also lead to elevated blood sugars if someone with diabetes abruptly stops taking insulin or diabetes medications because they assume they don't need these medications when they are fasting.”

Your resting metabolism slows.

A short-term fast, such as intermittent fasting, or one missed meal shouldn’t have a negative impact on overall metabolic rate (metabolism), but prolonged fasting can significantly slow down your metabolism and make weight loss harder in the long run.

When you skip meals, your body goes into starvation mode, or a fasted state, where your brain cues your body to slow down functions to conserve energy and burn less calories. As a result, that weight loss you were hoping for could slow and you will likely regain body weight as soon as you start eating normally again.

“In starvation mode, when your body finishes its preferred energy source (glucose), it will switch to burning fat (a state of ketosis),” Spina said. “As this fasting phase continues, it may also start breaking down protein in the form of muscle tissue, which can damage your kidneys.”

Your hunger hormones take a hit.

Your body has built-in hunger and fullness signals in the form of hormones, that let you know when you need to eat and when to stop eating. By ignoring hunger cues, several hormones are disrupted including insulin, leptin, cortisol and ghrelin.

“Studies show that even just looking at food and thinking about food can affect these hormones,” Spina said. “And let's face it, if you're hungry, it's hard not to think about food.”

Hunger is part of a negative feedback loop, meaning that the only way to decrease feelings of hunger is to eat. When you continue to skip meals, your body will produce more and more ghrelin, the hormone that causes hunger pains. It will also produce less leptin – the hormone that decreases appetite – making it harder for you to know when you’re already full and can lead to overeating or binge eating.

[Also read: “Can Certain Foods Increase Stress and Anxiety?”]

You may overeat at your next meal.

Not eating for an extended period of time can lead to craving unhealthy foods. Instead of reaching for healthy, nutrient-dense foods, you may be reaching for carbs or sweets, which provide an easy source of glucose for the body. That may make you feel better quickly but not for long.

“Without protein, fat or fiber to slow the rise in glucose, your blood sugar can spike and then drop rather rapidly,” Spina said. “This is what we call a sugar crash, and it can lead into a vicious cycle and dangerous blood sugar levels for people with diabetes.”

You may lose the joy of eating.

At a certain point, intentionally skipping meals and restricting calories can quickly go from being beneficial to being bad for your health, both physically and psychologically. That fine line is impossible to identify.

“Food restriction is the basis of many eating disorders, such as anorexia, bulimia or orthorexia (unhealthy focus on healthy food), and can trigger a very harmful relationship with food,” Spina said.

Practicing more mindful and intuitive eating helps to acknowledge hunger and fullness cues to prevent overeating and develop an overall healthier relationship with food.

Tips to avoid skipping meals

Let’s face it, life is busy. You’ve got a lot on your plate – metaphorically speaking. If you’re extremely busy, it doesn’t mean you should deprive yourself of nutrients. Here are some tips to keep your body and mind running at full throttle.

  • Plan ahead. Keep healthy snacks and no-prep foods on hand like fresh fruits, baby carrots and sliced vegetables, yogurt, cheese, nuts, etc. If your work has a fridge, label refrigerated items so you can have on hand.
  • Prep ingredients for the week. Wash and chop vegetables and pre-portion out herbs, spices and condiments so that when it comes time to make the meal, most of the work is already done. If breakfast is tough in the morning, try overnight oats, yogurt and hardboiled eggs as a quick and easy breakfast option on-the-go.
  • Cook larger portions. Dinner can be great for lunch the next day. Create larger portions and pre-portion the leftovers into containers for lunch-on-the-go during the week.
  • Schedule lunchtime. Block off your calendar in the middle of the day, so you don’t overbook yourself or fall behind. And try to stick with this sacred time. Set healthy boundaries with coworkers and others so they know that this time is not available during the week. Here are tips to work within your schedule.

Bottom line

Skipping meals can happen from time to time but doing it often can have a negative long term impact on your health. A balanced diet inclusive of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts/seeds, beans/legumes, lean proteins and healthy fats is always going to be the gold standard, regardless of meal timing.

Talk to your health care provider or a registered dietitian about what eating plan might be right for you. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

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