Is it ok to skip meals, even occasionally? Here's what happens to your body
You might lose a little weight but there are other health issues to contend with, say experts.
Between waking up and getting ready for work, you might have just enough time to down a cup of coffee before you have to get out of the house. Or your boss just handed you a report at 12pm that needs completing in an hour’s time.
Whatever the reason, meal-skipping happens. So, what’s the big deal, right? We over-eat anyway, so we can stand to miss a couple of meals in a day.
For starters, skipping just one meal causes your blood sugar levels to plummet. If you skip breakfast, it means your body has gone without fuel for nearly 12 hours – assuming your last meal was at 8pm and you begin your day at 7am. Imagine starting your car’s engine when its tank is empty, and you get the picture.
“Consistently (skipping meals) might lead to issues such as poor concentration, poor-quality diet and slowed metabolism for some,” said Apple Chan, a dietitian from Gleneagles Hospital. “This usually does not happen overnight. It’s the chronic, low consumption that happens over months or even years.”
In fact, unsated hunger pangs may cause you to over-eat at your next meal – not a good thing if you’re watching your calorie intake. More importantly, there’s also the diabetes risk.
In a study published in the medical journal Metabolism, researchers found that skipping meals during the day and eating one large meal in the evening created elevated fasting glucose levels and a delayed insulin response – conditions that can lead to diabetes in the long run.
But what if you try to redeem yourself by grabbing a cup of Milo or a couple of biscuits? Don’t these stop-gap measures go some ways in placating your rumbling tummy? Yes, but not nearly enough. “That is definitely not going to last you till your next meal,” said Chan.
At the very least, she said, ensure that your snack has the basic nutrient components: Carbohydrates, fats and protein. “All of these provide for the different functions the body requires for energy sustenance.”
Instead of just a cup of Milo, she recommended adding a tuna sandwich with avocado. That way, you get some carbs from the bread, protein from the tuna, and fats from the avocado and Milo. No time to head to the deli? Fix yourself some wholemeal crackers, cheese and Milo from the pantry. Or stash some cereal bars (they usually contain all three nutrients) in your office drawer.
Here’s a look at what other health issues can happen when you skip meals.
YOU WON’T LOSE WEIGHT IN THE LONG RUN
You might notice your clothes feeling looser and think you’ve lost weight from skipping meals. But it’d be a bad idea to use this method to pursue your ideal weight. “More than 50 per cent of the rapid weight reduction is fluid, which can lead to serious low blood pressure,” cautioned Chan.
She said that a study on obese individuals showed that at the 5-per-cent weight loss mark, continued fasting will actually result in less fat burning and more water loss. So, there might be an initial drop in weight due to the loss of water, but it will plateau after a while, she said.
Incidentally, once your body detects a shortage in food, it goes into self-preservation mode. Chan explained: “If the body detects that it is constantly receiving less than the required amount of food intake, it compensates by reducing energy expenditure.”
Some individuals may think that skipping meals can help them drop their weight as it is rather similar to the popular diet method known as intermittent fasting. Basically, it oscillates between periods (it can be hours, days or even weeks) of eating and fasting without having to mind what foods to stay away from.
“Skipping meals and other types of intermittent fasting may not be realistic for most people, and it does have the potential to backfire if it triggers unhealthy snacking or overeating later on,” Chan said.
“Even though intermittent fasting results in quick weight loss, it's often fluid loss and might not be substantial and sustainable in the long run. There are also some risks associated, such as dehydration and heartburn.
“Although I might not oppose healthy individuals opting for such diets for short periods of time, individuals with medical issues, such as diabetics and eating disorders, should refrain from them,” cautioned Chan.
YOU LOSE MUSCLE MASS
Say goodbye to the muscle gains you’ve worked so hard for at the gym because your body will start to cannibalise your muscles, usually within four to six hours of not eating, said Chan.
“During the early stages of fasting, the body can tap on back-up glycogen reserves. But even so, these stores can be depleted within 24 hours,” she said.
If you’re counting on increasing your fat burn through ketosis (the process where fats get broken down by the body for use as energy), it is only after one week of fasting or food deprivation that it happens, said Chan. By then, your body would have torched through considerable amounts of muscle for fuel.
YOU GET GASTRIC PROBLEMS
You’re not giving your stomach a break by skipping a meal or two. The reason is this: Your stomach produces digestive juices to break down the food that you eat. Even when there is no food to digest, it continues to do its job at the usual time that you eat.
“Prolonged periods without food tend to lead to acid reflux, gastritis and stomach acid. Excessive amounts of digestive juices might erode your intestinal lining and cause ulcers,” said Chan.
YOU START TO EAT JUNK FOOD
Ever notice how your resolve to stay away from doughnuts and fried chicken dissolves when you’re super hungry? That’s because when your blood sugar levels are low, your body wants you to grab hold of the easiest fuel to burn.
Unfortunately for us, that’s usually sugar and fat as they can raise the blood sugar levels quickly, said Chan. “You also tend to eat more ravenously when food becomes available, so your diet goes out of the window.”
YOU GET BAD BREATH
During the periods when you skip meals, your mouth produces less saliva and you might end up with a dry mouth. It is the perfect condition for bacteria to flourish, which in turn, can generate odour in your breath.
“If you have to skip a meal, drink sufficient water to keep your mouth moist and help to stimulate saliva production,” said Chan.