In the go-go fast paced world we live in, coupled with all of the messed up messages we get about weight and the skinny body ideal, meal skipping is a real thing. Maybe you’ve found yourself hurrying to get out the door in the morning, only to realize at 1pm that you’re starving, and didn’t bring a lunch. Or you’ve had a super busy day and haven’t meal prepped yet, so you end up eating popcorn for dinner, or just sort of skipping it altogether. Sprinkle in the background thoughts in your mind about wanting to lose those extra pounds: “I should probably cut back on calories anyways”...and you’ve got a recipe for, you guessed it- metabolic disaster. That may sound a little harsh, but stick with me, and I’ll tell you why.
Why Is Glucose So Important?
Your brain is always hungry. Even though it accounts for a small 2% of our overall body weight, our brains consume roughly 20% of the energy our body produces, which makes it the “hungriest” part of our bodies (1). Do you know what the brain “eats” when it’s hungry? Glucose. The energy currency of the body is that simple little sugar molecule (glucose), which we get through our diets.
When the brain doesn’t get the fuel it needs, it starts to freak out in a big way and sounds the alarm bells. In other words, skipping meals is a form of stress on your body and sets off a domino effect of signals and hormones that eventually lead to some pretty detrimental health effects.
Your Brain Sounding The Alarm
When we skip meals or heavily restrict calorie intake, our brains sound the alarm and start screaming: “Help! I’m starving! I need fuel!” which kicks in your body’s deeply ingrained survival mechanisms.
This alarm sends a signal to your adrenal glands to release cortisol. Cortisol, as we’ve come to know it well, is basically one of the key “stress hormones”.
Cortisol then tells your liver to dump all of its energy reserves (the liver stores glucose for us), into the bloodstream so it can be used.
Then comes insulin. Insulin is the hormone that gets the glucose into the cells. Insulin will spike along with cortisol, and over time the cells can become less responsive to it, which is known as insulin resistance. You know how when you listen to music, at first you can hear the lyrics and are singing away, but eventually it just becomes background noise and you’re not paying as much attention? The same thing happens to the cells with insulin. At first, in normal amounts, insulin will “knock” on the door of the cells to let sugar in, and the cells will say: “Hey, nice to see you! Come on in!” But when it’s continually knocking on the door the cells start to say: “Stop knocking and go away!”. When the cells “tune out” insulin, it means the sugar stays in the bloodstream.
Sugar in the bloodstream is dangerous, as we see with the long-term health consequences that can come with diabetes and metabolic conditions. So in comes the liver to save the day! Remember how the liver stores sugar for us? Well, the liver will take the excess sugar in the bloodstream and not only store it in the liver, but it will turn any extra sugar into fat. Yup, you hear that right. And not only fat, but the kind that hangs out around your abdomen in a big ol’ donut shape.
Cravings & Binge-Eating: Why Willpower Isn’t Enough
You know those wicked cravings for sugar and carbs you get when you’re hangry? That’s cortisol, my friends. Cortisol will send signals back to the brain and body that literally make you crave sweets and anything rich in glucose (aka sugar). This is why calorie restrictive diets and willpower don’t work- you’re working against really strong physiological messages that are telling you to eat the exact things you’re trying to avoid (hello muffins, chips and chocolate). All of this also leads to binge-eating. When your body thinks it’s entering starvation mode, and you finally start to eat food, you’re not only going to go for foods that are rich in sugar, carbs and fat, but you’re not going to stop at just one. You’re going to eat the whole fricken bag. And the reason it feels so good and tastes so damn good while you’re doing it is because your body is saying: “Yes! Thank you! Finally, some fuel!” It’s the body’s way of rewarding you for giving it some nutrients and building blocks, so it can do its job.
Survival Mode: Your Body Thinks It’s Starving
And if we needed one more thing to put the cherry on this cortisol cake, here it is- When we skip meals, especially if it happens a lot, our bodies will start to think that there’s a famine going on out there. And in case you didn’t know, famines are not a good scene for an organism that needs food everyday to survive. So when you do eat, guess what cortisol is going to do? It’s going to encourage your body to store that fuel as fat. Fat can be broken down into glucose later on to be used as energy when glucose itself isn’t present. It's a survival mechanism that developed over the course of evolution to protect us from starving when resources were sparse in our environments. The body knows what's it's doing, and will do whatever it can to protect us.
The Thyroid Connection: Skipping Meals Slows Down Metabolism
In order to be efficient with the energy it does have, and to conserve more of it so it lasts longer, your body is also going to slow down your metabolism. Dr. Aviva Romm, author of the Adrenal-Thyroid Revolution explains that “famine is one of those emergencies that our HPA Axis (the stress hormone pathway) is programmed to respond to by shifting us from energy expending activities like metabolism, reproductive functions and sex drive, to energy saving behaviors like slowed metabolism and weight gain. As such, cortisol puts a kabash on thyroid function. It’s like a an automatic stop on your bank account to protect you from over-drafting.” (2) In turn, low thyroid and thyroid imbalances can result from not giving yourself enough nutrients and building blocks in the day. Signs of thyroid imbalance range from hair loss, brittle nails, dry skin, constipation to low energy, depression-like symptoms and weight gain. Again! This is your body setting itself up to survive. It’s smart. Sooooo smart. And your body will do anything in its power to keep you alive.
What Does This Mean For Your Future Health?
So while you think skipping meals is no biggie, and might even help you lose a little weight, ALL of this is going on in your body and is actually setting up to gain more weight and increases your chance of developing some more serious health conditions down the road. In fact, research is showing that “tight regulation of glucose metabolism is critical for brain physiology and disturbed glucose metabolism in the brain underlies several diseases affecting both the brain itself as well as the entire organism.” (1) You may be setting yourself up for hormone imbalance, thyroid dysregulation, weight gain, insulin resistance and more. In the brain itself, “neurons are largely intolerant of inadequate energy supply, and thus the high energy demand of the brain predisposes it to a variety of diseases if energy supplies are disrupted.” (1) Meaning, if we don’t give our brains the energy it needs to govern all of our bodies functions, it’s bad news bears, my friends.
Here we are, with the moral of the story.
- Eat regular, well balanced meals throughout the day (no skipping!) to keep blood sugar balanced
- Get adequate protein and fiber with your meals. Protein and fiber will slow the release of glucose (carbs) into the system, which means you have more sustained energy through the day. This means you avoid the big blood sugar spikes (and crashes) that come with simple carb foods (refined flours, sugary cereals, candy, chocolate, chips, crackers, bread etc).
- Plan ahead with meal prepping and snacks at the ready. We all know that when we’re in a hurry and allow ourselves to get super hungry, it’s game over for making healthy choices. So coming up with a plan to have pre-made meals and healthy snacks ready to go is actually a great self-care strategy for nourishing your body well.
- Challenge the “skinny is better” mentality of our culture & practice self love. Yup, a big reason we skip meals and restrict our calories is the subliminal (and overt) messaging we get on a daily basis that we should be as skinny as possible, and always have losing weight as our goal. The more we can step outside of this paradigm and approach eating as a way to love our bodies and give it what it needs to work its magic and keep us healthy- the closer we’ll be to coming into balance with the way we eat.
Sending you and your beautiful body so much love!
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- Mergenthaler, P., Lindauer, U., Dienel, G. A., & Meisel, A. (2013). Sugar for the brain: the role of glucose in physiological and pathological brain function. Trends in neurosciences, 36(10), 587–597. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2013.07.001
- Dr. Aviva Romm: The Adrenal-Thyroid Connection. Retrieved August 28, 2021 from https://avivaromm.com/heal-your-thyroid-get-out-of-survival-mode/