Missing the Occasional Meal Benefits More than the Waistline

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Most experts will say that skipping meals is unhealthy. That’s not wrong. But it’s not always right either.

When most people broach the question, it’s asking permission to ignore their body in a misguided approach to losing weight. That, indeed, isn’t a good idea. Nor is it a great idea to skip breakfast only to replace it with a couple of donuts as a midmorning snack (even the free ones at the office have calories) or to pass on lunch in favor of saving the appetite a massive seven-course dinner.

Skipping meals can also be a sign of unhealthy behavior, particularly among children or adolescents. So in the most common context, where people are looking for a quick fix to shed unwanted pounds as painlessly as possible, skipping meals isn’t a great idea.

But not everyone is asking the question with that motivation in mind, so take advice about skipping meals with a big grain of salt. The best approach to eating is to listen to your body and feed it healthy choices when it asks.

If your body is saying, “You gave me oatmeal and fruit three hours ago, I’m good,” you don’t need to have another mean for the sake of sticking to a schedule.

Just because it’s noon and the conference you’re at is breaking for lunch doesn’t mean you need to hit the buffet—especially if your stomach is full. Skipping the occasional meal isn’t a big deal.

In addition, skipping meals as part of a controlled eating plan may be beneficial. A study published in Free Radical Biology & Medicine took overweight adults, who also suffered from mild asthma, and alternated a day of normal meals with the equivalent of a single meal’s worth of calories the following day.

The dieters found that their health improved, as evidenced by a loss of weight, a decrease in the asthma and a lower amount of cholesterol and triglycerides, among other positive developments.

It’s possible that this benefit extends beyond simply skipping meals. Intermittent fasting, which alternates days of eating with 24-hour periods of fasting, also may have health benefits. This can be less onerous than it sounds; one way to manage the process is to consider the start of the “day” at 6:00 PM.

That means eating an early dinner at 5:00 PM or so, skipping breakfast and lunch the next day, and then having a 6:00 PM dinner and eating the following morning and afternoon. Not only can that help people lose weight, it may even prolong your life.

It’s possible that this was the eating strategy of our cavemen ancestors, who would kill some wild game, consume it until the meat was gone and the hunger sated. They would then rest until they were hungry enough to repeat the cycle again.

There was no Blackberry or wall clock pushing them to set schedules; no annoying cartoon characters pressing the need to eat the right foods at specific intervals. Instead, this may be another case where by doing what came naturally to them, the caveman way may have some practical applications for the modern day as well.

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