We all know how skipping a meal makes us feel—distracted, tired, maybe shaky and weak. But when you don’t eat, there’s a lot that goes on internally that you may not feel or haven’t felt yet. This goes for adults who can eat and opt not to, as well as people without access to proper nutrition or regular meals.
"Research shows that skipping meals is linked to poor-quality diets," says Mary Hartley, RD, MPH. "It is difficult to get all of the nutrients you need when you skip meals." It may seem obvious, yet when most of us skip a meal, we rarely think about how hard it will be to catch up on our daily nutrition requirements.
And that's not all. People who skip meals are more likely to be obese. Breezing past breakfast might seem like a great way to cut calories, but missing a morning meal can lead to "feeling ravenous" later in the day, Hartley says. This makes us vulnerable to overeating. According to a yearlong study of overweight and obese women 50 to 75, women who didn’t eat regular meals were not as successful in losing weight as those who ate regularly. Women who ate throughout the day lost an average of eight more pounds over the year.
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If six small meals work better for you, because of your metabolism or schedule, then that is also an option. But guess which meal is not negotiable? Yup, it's breakfast—indeed, the most important meal of the day.
Omitting breakfast has been linked to chronic health conditions, Hartley notes. "It is important to eat breakfast to get some carbohydrate into the bloodstream to feel energized and clear-thinking," she says. That doesn’t mean breakfast should be one-size-fits-all. "The decision to eat a big or small breakfast is a matter of personal choice," she says, but suggests people who can't take a morning break, like teachers and students, should eat a bigger breakfast, complete with a protein and fiber source so they are sated until lunch. Others may choose a liquid-based or smaller meal and factor in a mid-morning snack. The point is to consume healthy foods on a regular schedule.
While adults may be able to justify or compensate for the body drama set off by skipping meals, studies show that kids cannot. "Research shows that hungry children do not learn to their full potential," Hartley explains. Kids who miss meals are also more likely to have lower test scores, be tardy or absent from school, have behavioral issues when they are in class, and, like their adult counterparts, struggle to concentrate and solve problems.
A 2010 survey by the American Dietetic Association Foundation (ADAF) found that about half of children aged 8 to 17 skip breakfast sometimes. Fifteen percent rarely or never eat first thing in the morning. According to that same survey, about a third of children sometimes miss out on dinner, while approximately four percent rarely or never eat dinner.
The problem of kids missing meals is not only a result of poverty—though hunger does affect one in five children. After-school snacking replaces an evening meal for too many kids. ADAF recommends that parents and schools offer nutrient-rich snacks throughout the day in order to supplement missed meals and maintain nutritional balance. Hartley concurs, adding that this may be an essential approach for children who do not eat much at one sitting or have high-caloric requirements for growth.
Managing meals better for both children and adults also helps prevent diabetes. Some research shows that the blood-sugar dips of those who do not eat regularly put them at higher risk for the disease. Hartley says this isn't usually a problem for healthy individuals, but can be a concern for prediabetics.
"For people with insulin insensitivity, a common condition where insulin becomes less effective at regulating blood sugars, skipping meals may be associated with unpleasant sugar dips," she says. This can go beyond feelings of weakness to include numbness in face, dizziness, nervousness, cold sweats, headaches, and irritability.
Whether they're our own or a child's, hunger pains should be taken very seriously. Ignoring these signs from our bodies, or getting used to pushing past them, can be dangerous to our health. To prevent hunger, remember to spend a few minutes planning and preparing meals for the day or week. In addition, try to make a habit of contributing a few dollars or hours to nonprofits that serve hungry children and seniors. This simple action does a lot more than fill empty bellies; it helps prevent obesity and serious illness, and supports learning and wellbeing for people of all ages.