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The Penalty for Skipping Meals

August 30, 2004 02:54 PM

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Editor, Sports Performance Journal (athletesperformance.com)

Tennis players are notorious for eating at odd times, eating not-so-nutritious meals, and even skipping meals altogether. Evelyn Tribole’s new edition of Eating on the Run (Human Kinetics Publishers) has some good suggestions for tennis players and other time-challenged athletes. Here is what she says about skipping meals.

“Let’s look at the problems of skipping meals or going so long without eating that it’s like a mini-fast. One of the biggest consequences is what I call primal hunger. That’s when your body gets so hungry that anything goes: all honorable intentions about health fly out the window. Your body is hardwired for survival, and if you go too long without eating, it goes into survival mode by sending you on a food quest. Although no true famine threatens your survival, your cells do not know that there are 24-hour grocery stores and fast-food restaurants on every corner! The bottom line is that if you go too long without eating, you are likely to eat too much at the next opportunity. Therefore, skipping breakfast, or any meal for that matter, will catch up with you. In fact, adding a timely snack or grazing is like a vaccine to prevent overeating.

Consider these other consequences of meal skipping:

  • Poor performance. Meal skippers don’t perform as well. They accomplish less work, are physically less steady, and are slower at making decisions.
  • Brain drain. The brain’s exclusive fuel, glucose, is compromised within four to six hours if you have not eaten. That’s because the glucose stored in the liver as glycogen, runs out during this time period. The liver is like a traffic cop for blood sugar. When blood glucose dips too low, the liver converts glycogen into glucose and releases it into the blood. But if its glycogen has been depleted, the body has to turn to less efficient fueling methods.
  • Calorie loading. Calorie loading easily occurs if you eat just one meal a day (typically dinner). Eating just one large meal tends to overwhelm your body with calories that it does not need at that moment. It’s like plugging all the appliances in your house into one socket. Even though the entire electrical system can handle all the appliances, if they are concentrated on just one circuit, you’ll blow a fuse. It is better to spread the nutrient load.

Despite the known side effects of skipping meals, it’s easy to get caught in the trap of doing without. Here are some common reasons that people skip meals:

  • Breakfast: Getting up too late, not feeling hungry, nothing to eat
  • Lunch: Tied up in meetings, running errands, forgetting to bring lunch, forgetting to bring cash, behind on project deadlines
  • Dinner: Meeting after work, evening aerobics class, arriving home late

Another common problem is stress. People often become so focused on a project or so stressed and overwhelmed that they truly don’t experience hunger. There is a reason for this. Stress hormones can blunt hunger. And since time is precious, it’s easy to postpone eating. The next thing you know, it’s dinner time, and you haven’t even had lunch.

The breakfast skippers that I work with often say, “I’m not hungry in the morning.” If you’re the same way, it is likely that you have conditioned your body over a number of years not to be hungry. When hunger is ignored often enough, you don’t feel it! Nonetheless, your body still needs to be fed.

A lack of time is a popular excuse to skip meals. Who has time to eat, really? Remember that you don’t need to sit down to three big meals. Instead, you can eat fast, nutritious mini-meals, especially when time is fleeting. For example, breakfast is just a matter of having something to eat in the morning, even if you have to wait until you get to the office. A quick mini-breakfast could be as easy a glass of orange juice and a cup of milk—-it takes all of 19 seconds to prepare. (Yes, I timed it!) In fact, when I encourage clients to eat something in the morning, I give this simple 19-second example. They often respond with a look of relief. This is how I introduce them to grazing.”

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at
sportsmed@mindspring.com.

 

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