Why you shouldn’t skip meals to lose weight

Weight Management

by April D. Pickrel, RD

Jul 13, 2022

Whether you’re doing it on accident because of a busy schedule or on purpose because of a bulging waistline, skipping meals is not the best way to lose weight and stay healthy. The truth is, this strategy can backfire.

People think that by skipping food intake, they’ll lose weight. But what you really need to be concerned about overall is total daily calorie intake. The problem is that when we go without food, fat-storing enzymes increase and metabolism decreases as a means of preservation. So, when people do eat, they need to be careful to get the number of calories that is right for them.

For the purposes of this conversation, let’s define “meal-skipping” as going without calorie intake, whether from solids or liquids, for more than five hours between waking to bedtime. Let’s discuss what happens in your body when you skip a meal—and explore some more effective long-term weight loss strategies.

Keep in mind, nutrition is highly individualized. Working with a registered dietitian is the best way to build an eating plan that fits your specific health needs and goals.

Intermittent fasting doesn’t work for everyone

Your body needs fuel to run, and that fuel comes from food. Think of your meals as buckets you’re using to fill your tank. If your tank requires three buckets of fuel and you’re trying to fill it with just two buckets to save a trip, then you’ll end up spilling the extra all over the floor.

If a person puts more calories in the body than it can use for immediate functions, the excess is going to be stored in your body as fat—which is likely the opposite of what you’re going for.

However, the practice of limiting how many meals you eat in a day—called intermittent fasting or time-restricted eating (TRE)—may work for some people. I’ve had patients who simply aren’t hungry in the morning and find it easier to stick to a calorie plan by just eating two meals a day.

That said, there do continue to be studies indicating that people who don’t eat breakfast are typically short on dietary fiber, as well as other nutrients.

A study from Current Obesity Reports found that skipping breakfast combined with low fiber intake may be linked to other health issues, such as gallbladder problems or heart disease. The researchers also found that the weight loss accomplished through intermittent fasting was comparable to that of simply restricting daily calorie intake.

More than anything, I tell my patients that choosing not to eat a meal or snack might be okay for you, as long as you are able to make good choices when you get to your next meal. But if you get to the next meal and your portions are out of control or you can’t make healthy choices because you’re too hungry, you’ve waited too long to eat.

Skipping meals can slow your metabolism

One of the factors you must keep in mind is that adults who have lost weight tend to require about 20% fewer calories than a person who’s always been at that weight. In other words, if you drop to 140 pounds, you’ll actually need fewer calories to stay there than someone who’s weighed 140 pounds all their adult life.

Metabolism plays a big role in weight loss. However, that part of body function is hard to control. We know that aerobic exercise is critical for cardiac health and overall fitness and is great at burning fat, but the best way to boost your metabolism is through strength training.

With planned diet and exercise, you can boost your metabolism and help fight back against health problems associated with excess weight. If strength training is new for you, it can be helpful to work with a personal trainer to get you started on an exercise routine that is optimized for your needs.

Meal prepping tips

One common reason people skip meals or choose unhealthy options is the familiar excuse, “I don’t have time.” Wouldn’t it be nice if you had ample time to plan, prepare and eat regular meals throughout your day? While that’s not the reality for a lot of people—whether it be due to a busy work schedule, taking care of kids or frequent travel—what you can do is make healthy eating a priority and find a system that will work within your schedule.

If you are often pressed for time, consider prepping your meals or snacks for the week ahead of time. This will help you avoid temptations at fast food restaurants. Even planning your meals one meal in advance will help you stick to your eating plan because you’ll know you have a balanced option ready for you.

Don’t skip out on breakfast

One of the most commonly skipped meals is breakfast. In deciding whether you should skip it, pay attention to how you feel at lunchtime. Are you able to make good choices with food and portion sizes? Then it’s probably okay for you to skip breakfast. If you’re starving at lunch, though, you probably shouldn’t.

Research has shown that breakfast is important, and you must make time to start your day off right:

  • A 2015 study by the National Weight Control Registry showed that 78% of the participants ate breakfast every day and those participants lost an average of 66 pounds and kept it off an average of 5.5 years.
  • Childhood studies show eating breakfast improves math, reading, standardized test scores and memory.
  • People who eat breakfast generally get more calcium, dietary fiber, folate and protein than those who do not.
  • There is a correlation in children showing that those who eat breakfast on a regular basis are less likely to be overweight.
  • In adults, there is an association with breakfast skipping and an increased prevalence of obesity.

Bottom line: skipping meals rarely results in weight loss for the long term and it can negatively impact your metabolism. So, consider waking a few minutes earlier to fit in a quick breakfast before your busy day gets away from you.

Confused about what to eat, how much or when? Connect with a registered dietitian near you today.

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