Should you skip meals to lose weight?

Can skipping meals help you cut calories? Does it matter when you eat your meals? These questions never get old, because if somehow we could arrange the same amount of food so that our bodies registered fewer calories, we could lose weight without sacrifice.

Researchers are trying to figure out meal frequency, meal timing and their effect on weight; here’s the latest.

Eating after dark

A new study from the University of Pennsylvania simulated the eating rhythms of many teens and college-aged kids I know – eating all your meals between noon and 11pm – and compared them to a more traditional 8am-7pm eating schedule.

The researchers found that during the 8 weeks of late meals the volunteers not only gained weight, they also experienced metabolic downsides: insulin, glucose, cholesterol and triglycerides increased.

The same small group of people, when on the 8-week early-meal schedule, had higher levels of the “appetite” hormone ghrelin earlier in the day, and their “satiety” hormone leptin peaked later in the day. This suggests that eating early helps prevent overeating in the evening and night.

This study suggests that controlling appetite and weight might just be easier if we stick to eating when there’s light outside. Shifting the meal schedule forward – Spain style – might be unfavorable to our figure and health.

Skipping meals in the name of weight loss

Popular diet trends suggest that doing away with a meal --- breakfast or dinner -- is a simple way to cut on intake and control weight. Many experts strongly disagree: Skipping breakfast, they argue, has been linked to increased risk of obesity in several studies. The evidence is far from conclusive, but there’s concern that a nocturnal lifestyle, one in which the bulk of food is eaten later, is unfriendly to our metabolism. Several studies even showed that skipping breakfast slows it.

A new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition looks at this question from a different angle, and compares skipping breakfast to skipping dinner. The researchers, who studied a small, 17-volunteer group of young people (21-30 year olds) had them skip breakfast one day, and on another day skip dinner, and compared that situation to the same people on a regular 3-meal-a-day schedule. The daily caloric intake was maintained in all 3 situations.

To their surprise, the researchers found that skipping a meal, whether breakfast or dinner, didn’t affect overall energy burning negatively. Actually, meal skipping increased energy burning a little! However, stress hormones spiked when breakfast was skipped, and there were higher levels of insulin after meals.

This was a very controlled study, in which the participants ate regimented meals in a caloric chamber. They weren’t able to act on hunger. It very well might be that skipping breakfast’s effect centers on stimulating a big appetite, and not on slowing metabolism. In an uncontrolled environment, skipping a meal might come to bite you – building a ravenous appetite and an I’ll-eat-anything behavior.

Bottom line

Making time for meals, especially for breakfast, is a healthy habit, or at least a habit that healthy people tend to adopt.

Although there’s support for the notion that regular meals are friendly to your waistline, not to mention to your disposition and ability to concentrate, the evidence is not clear-cut.

And while eating breakfast is the habit of slimmer people, that doesn’t mean that skipping breakfast makes you fat. Midnight, on the other hand, is the time when the junkiest foods are eaten – it’s a good idea to close the kitchen early.

There’s great variability between people and no rule fits all. So if you absolutely just hate eating breakfast, you’re excused.

For most of us, waking up in time and planning for breakfast is a way to start the day right! And that’s especially true for kids – breakfast before school is a must!

The most important variable in weight maintenance though is what you eat, and how much of it. The what is more important than the when.

Dr. Ayala

Making time for meals, especially for breakfast, is a healthy habit, or at least a habit that healthy people tend to adopt.