To see what actually happens when you routinely skip meals, we checked in with Alexandra Pereira, CDN, RDN, a clinical dietitian nutritionist and certified intuitive eating counselor at Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut.
What happens to your body when you're skipping meals regularly?
You likely already know of a few telltale symptoms of not getting food in your system in a timely manner. (Personally, I’m prone to intense hanger that dissipates upon my first bite of a yummy, long-awaited nosh.) Maybe your tummy rumbles, you get a bit shaky, or just generally feel off… or perhaps you don’t notice anything at all. While skipping a meal every so often is unlikely to derail your wellness goals in a major way, habitually skipping them can prompt more intense and/or lasting symptoms to take hold. “Skipping meals can have detrimental effects on your overall health, impacting your energy levels, metabolism, general nutrition, and potentially leading to various health issues,” Pereira warns.
For starters, Pereira reminds us that food is—among many other glorious things—fuel. “Just as a car can't run on an empty gas tank for a busy day of errands, we should view our body's energy needs similarly,” she shares. When you don’t fill your tank, per se, you may experience fatigue, midday work slumps, and difficulty powering your exercises (among other things). “It can also promote overeating at the next meal due to excessive hunger, which is a signal from the body that it needs fuel sooner,” she explains.
Your digestive function can also take a hit. “If you consistently skip meals over an extended period, it raises the likelihood of developing gastritis, aka inflammation of your stomach lining,” she continues. When sustained over time, this can develop into indigestion—a few symptoms of which may include bloating, acid reflux or GERD, heartburn, diarrhea, or constipation. Not getting enough quality food in your system, at appropriate times, can also be taxing on your mood and mental health.
"If you consistently skip meals over an extended period, it raises the likelihood of developing gastritis, aka inflammation of your stomach lining."
—Alexandra Pereira, CDN, RDN, clinical dietitian and certified intuitive eating counselor
What skipping meals does to your mental health
Pereira notes that our culture attaches emotions to food. Perhaps you experience this in the form of comfort eating—or, on the flipside, skipping meals when you’re overwhelmed. If you’re prone to the latter, you might exacerbate your stress levels and/or mood imbalances even further. “Skipping meals can cause low blood sugar, leading the body to release adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones,” Pereira explains. “The released hormones tell your body to create more sugar to balance your energy levels.” However, a few undesired symptoms can take hold, which she cites as a rapid heart rate, trembling, dizziness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, and anxiety.
Several studies illustrate just how detrimental skipping meals can be for your mental health. A 2020 study in the journal Innovation in Aging found that adults over 65 were more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety, and insomnia than those who adhered to regular mealtimes.
Kids, too, can suffer without a proper breakfast, as a 2017 study published in the journal Nursing Outlook discovered. Amongst over 1,400 Korean adolescents, those who frequently skipped breakfast had increased risks of stress, depressive mood, and even suicidal ideation. Meanwhile, a 2019 study in Psychological Medicine looked at 1,304 Australian adults aged 26 to 36, exploring the connection between time-of-day eating patterns and mood disorders. Upon a five-year follow-up, the researchers found that adults who followed non-traditional eating patterns—namely skipping or delaying breakfast—had a higher prevalence of mood disorders. Conversely, adults in the highest third of traditional eating patterns had a lower prevalence of developing mood imbalances.
These points considered, if you already struggle with mental health, are you more at risk when you skip meals? Pereira says it’s not so black and white. However, there’s a chance those with anxiety and depression “may be more symptomatic, feeling lethargic, and anxious (related to low blood sugar), and the body simply not having enough energy.” She also cautions people who fall into this camp might lack the drive or motivation to take care of themselves on account of mental health struggles, which can lead to skipping meals and thus perpetuate an dangerous cycle.
3 tips to keep your mealtimes on track
“Being consistent and following a regular eating schedule can be difficult—especially when balancing a busy life, battling low appetite, anxiety, depression, or forgetfulness,” says Pereira. To get ahead of these patterns that are counter to your well-being, she suggests eating every three to four waking hours and adopting the tips below.
1. Develop a routine
To start, creating food-centric routines can be helpful. “Set a specific day each week, or every other week, as your grocery shopping day. Make a list before you go as well to make sure you buy items so you can make staple meals for yourself,” she advises. “This will also help ensure you have a few of your favorite food items always around at home, at work, and in your personal bag to make it more convenient to reach for something easily.” If you can’t make it to a store, you can always opt for grocery delivery services. Automate them, if needed, to ensure your kitchen remains stocked—and your stomach full—with healthy, nourishing fare.
2. Listen to and honor your hunger cues
In most cases, your body will tell you that it needs food. Listen up and heed its call, whenever that may be. “There seems to be a war on hunger with a lot of societal pressure to ignore these signals,” Pereira shares. “Just as your mood and energy levels fluctuate daily, your hunger does too. If you're feeling hungry, honor it by eating, regardless of whether it aligns with a scheduled mealtime.”
“Building a habit takes time and effort. Don't get discouraged if you slip up occasionally. Just refocus and continue working towards consistency.”
3. Set small goals
Making a hearty breakfast on the daily from today forward might not be realistic for those who have skipped morning meals for most of their lives. The same applies if you’re used to grazing at your desk every so often versus packing your own lunch. However, if you want to support your mental health and greater well-being, setting a few small goals and carrying them out over time will put you in a good place to develop a sustainable habit. “As humans, we tend to want to see big changes all at once. But when it comes to food, slow and steady is the best course of action,” the intuitive eating expert shares. “Building a habit takes time and effort. Don't get discouraged if you slip up occasionally. Just refocus and continue working towards consistency.”
- Anderson, Loretta. “Skipping Meals Is Associated With Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression in U.S. Older Adults.” Innovation in Aging vol. 4,Suppl 1 515. 16 Dec. 2020, doi:10.1093/geroni/igaa057.1663
- Lee, Gyungjoo et al. “Risk of mental health problems in adolescents skipping meals: The Korean National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2010 to 2012.” Nursing outlook vol. 65,4 (2017): 411-419. doi:10.1016/j.outlook.2017.01.007
- Wilson JE, Blizzard L, Gall SL, et al. An eating pattern characterised by skipped or delayed breakfast is associated with mood disorders among an Australian adult cohort. Psychological Medicine. 2020;50(16):2711-2721. doi:10.1017/S0033291719002800
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