What Happens to Your Body When You Skip Meals, According to Experts
We've all done it—but what are the consequences?
Many of us grew up being told that in order to be healthy, we need three square meals a day—breakfast, lunch, and dinner (or breakfast, dinner, and supper, depending on where you're from). And don't forget snacks to tide you over in between! Still, almost everyone has skipped a meal now and then, and if you're reading this, you survived to tell the tale.
Whether you're practicing intermittent fasting, aren't feeling well, or are too crunched for time to grab some grub, there are plenty of reasons you might forgo a meal. But what happens to your body when you skip breakfast, lunch, dinner, or supper?
"Regularly skipping meals, especially when coupled with calorie restriction, can have significant impacts on both your physical and mental well-being," says health coach Anastasios "Taso" Mikroulis, founder and clinic director at Ideal Health Center in New York City. "When you skip meals, your body is deprived of essential macro and micronutrients necessary for its proper functioning. This can lead to a variety of symptoms, both physical and psychological."
Read on to find out what he and other nutrition experts told Best Life about what happens to your body when you skip meals—and whether you really need to eat those three squares (plus snacks!) every day.
You may feel tired and moody.
Your brain is part of your body (possibly the most important part!), and that's where you'll likely feel the impact of missing a meal first.
"Mentally, skipping meals can cause psychological stress," says Mikroulis. "Regularly skipping meals can lead to inadequate nutrient intake, fluctuating energy levels, impaired concentration, and disrupted metabolism. It may also increase the likelihood of overeating or making less healthy food choices when you do eat."
Nutrition and health coach Jen Bleiweis, RD, LD/N says the symptoms of forgoing a meal may be subtle, citing "brain fog, low-grade fatigue, and cravings" as examples. She says some people may also feel "hangry" or become irritable and have "very low energy." She also notes that missed meals can cause hormonal dysregulation, which in turn can contribute to moodiness.
Your body may enter "fight or flight" mode.
"Skipping meals on occasion is no big deal," says Florida-based registered dietician Lindsay Allen, MS, RDN. "However, regularly skipping meals can take a toll on the body." She says that over time, missed meals cause you to produce more cortisol, which is the body's stress hormone, the Mayo Clinic explains.
"When the body senses a famine or low supply of food, it ramps up the hormones necessary to search or 'hunt' for food. This has been encoded into our genes from the very beginning and is a survival mechanism," Allen tells Best Life.
"Some people claim they feel a 'high' or 'improved focus' when they go a long time without eating," Allen says. "What this really is is your 'fight or flight' hormones ramping up, which will encourage you to become energized and focused in order to look for food."
It may be harder to maintain a healthy weight.
You might think skipping meals will result in weight loss, and while that can certainly be true, it's far from guaranteed—and it's not a healthy way to go about achieving your weight loss goals, Mikroulis tells Best Life.
"Irregular eating patterns can disrupt your metabolism and make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight," he explains.
He also says going too long without eating can cause your muscles to break down over time. "Without an adequate intake of nutrients, the body may turn to breaking down muscle tissue to meet its energy needs, which can negatively affect your overall muscle mass and strength," he explains.
And when you lack strength, it's hard to exercise, which is an essential part of keeping your weight in a healthy range.
What you eat, not when, is most important.
Rather than focusing on scheduled mealtimes, it can be helpful to think about the quality of the nutrients you're putting into your body, says "concierge dietician" Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, LDN.
"What kind of food is the person eating during their meals or snacks?" she asks, pointing out that those who eat whole foods and follow a plant-based diet may need to eat more often than a person eating the standard American diet (SAD, for short).
She encourages people to "look first at the quality of the food they are eating and then consider meal timing." If you eat a lot of animal products and added sugar, salt, and oils—which are all calorie-dense foods—then Gomer says you may benefit from intermittent fasting.
"It may also help those who are eating compulsively or addictively refrain from uncontrolled eating out of habit or emotions, not hunger," she notes.
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Most people don't need to eat three meals a day plus snacks.
Do we really need to make sure we eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day—and snacks on top of that?
"It really depends on lifestyle and hunger," says Bleiweis. "Most people benefit from eating about every four to six hours."
Mikroulis says that while "the frequency and timing of meals can vary depending on individual preferences and lifestyles," he's a fan of eating regular meals, plus snacks. "It helps to prevent long periods of fasting, which can lead to drops in blood sugar levels and feelings of hunger. By spreading out your meals and snacks, you can provide a steady supply of nutrients and energy to fuel your body and brain."
And while Gomer feels that most people don't need to eat three full meals plus snacks every day, she emphasizes the importance of listening to your body. "If a person is low in energy when they skip meals, or feels foggy-headed, unable to concentrate, etc. then it's a sign that skipping a meal is not ideal. On the other hand, someone needing to lose weight and balance blood sugar and weight, may benefit from skipping a meal, or a fasting protocol."
Best Life offers the most up-to-date information from top experts, new research, and health agencies, but our content is not meant to be a substitute for professional guidance. If you have health questions or concerns, always consult your healthcare provider directly.