Are you a meal skipper? Many patients, when they first come to me, admit to engaging in this behavior regularly. They believe that if they skip a meal, at the end of the day they will have consumed fewer calories and that will help them lose weight. Unfortunately that never seems to be the case.

Now there’s confirmation: A recent study out of Yale University and the Southern University of California found that if you allow your body to run on empty you’re more likely to overeat. “Our results suggest that obese individuals may have a limited ability to inhibit the impulsive drive to eat, especially when glucose levels drop below normal,” wrote Kathleen A. Page, M.D., assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California and one of the lead authors of the paper.

Does this mean, then, you should be eating all day long? Not exactly – but creating a schedule that includes three meals and two or three snacks can keep binge-abetting hunger in check. Here’s how to do that.

Fuel up first thing. Try to eat within one hour of waking. The longer you wait to eat, the hungrier you’re likely to get, and so you may eat more than is healthy. If you really aren’t hungry first thing in the morning, you don’t have to eat a huge breakfast, just something to get you started. Think of it this way — you can’t run a car on empty, the same way you can’t run your body without food.

Choose breakfast foods with staying power. A healthy breakfast should keep you satisfied for at least three hours. If you feel hungrier after eating breakfast, it may be because your breakfast consisted mainly of low-fiber carbohydrates and contained hardly any protein. The ideal morning meal should include a combination of high fiber carbohydrates (oatmeal, cereal with more than 5 grams of fiber, whole-wheat bread, fruit) for quick energy; lean protein (low-fat yogurt, low-fat milk, cottage cheese, eggs, soy) that digests slowly and will keep you fuller longer; and some healthy fat (nuts, seeds, nut butters) for satiety.

Time snacks right. Try to eat something every three to four hours, and don’t go more than five hours without eating. For example, if you eat breakfast at 7 a.m. and lunch won’t be until 1 p.m., insert a 10:30 a.m. snack into your overall eating plan for the day. However, if you eat breakfast at 9 and lunch at 1, then you most likely could do without a morning snack.

The one meal/snack few people are able to skip is the mid-afternoon one. That’s because on average, most people don’t eat dinner until at least five hours after lunch; many wait much longer. And the one meal/snack most people could do without is the one after dinner. At that time of day, usually you eat out of stress or boredom and not because you’re physically hungry.

Eat snacks that stick. Just like breakfast, and all other meals for that matter, a snack needs to be balanced. Simply grabbing an apple or handful of grapes (as healthy as fruit is) is not going to do the job of decreasing your hunger enough so that you’re less likely to overeat. A balanced snack consists of a high-fiber carbohydrate and a healthy fat or protein — the carbohydrate for energy and the protein/fat to keep you fuller longer. You can find more about healthy between-meal eating by reading my previous post, “The Art of Snacking.”

Bottom Line: If you want to lose weight create a healthy eating schedule and start treating food as a friend — not a foe.

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