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Why Skipping Meals Could Signal An Eating Disorder

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Why Skipping Meals Could Signal An Eating Disorder

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Though it can be normal to occasionally skip a meal, regularly skipping meals is associated with an increased risk of developing an eating disorder. 
  • Skipping meals comes with both short-term and long-term risks, such as low blood sugar and energy levels, increased cravings, weight gain, and higher cardiovascular risk. 
  • If you or a loved one is skipping meals as a symptom of an eating disorder, it’s important to seek professional help right away. 

There are many reasons why a person might skip a meal– having a busy day, not feeling hungry, or experiencing an illness. It’s normal to skip a meal for these reasons every once in a while, but it's important to assess what's going on if you’re skipping meals multiple times a week or day. 

Not only can skipping meals on a regular basis cause short-term and long-term side effects, but it may also be a sign of an eating disorder

Continue reading to learn about the risks of skipping meals and what to do if you skip meals because of an eating disorder. 

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Why Skipping Meals Could Signal an Eating Disorder

It’s quite common for people to skip meals occasionally, but the reasons for this behavior vary greatly.

Some people skip meals on purpose as part of an intermittent fasting plan. Others have an irregular eating schedule due to low appetite or a hectic work schedule. 

In other cases, skipping meals on a regular basis can indicate an eating disorder, especially when accompanied by other habits like restricting, binging, over-exercising, and preoccupation with weight. 

Skipping meals is a common sign of many different eating disorders. For example, a person with anorexia may skip many meals to try and lose weight. Someone with bulimia or binge eating disorder may limit meals during the day and then binge at night. 

Dangers of Skipping Meals 

Routinely skipping meals can negatively impact your health. You may experience low energy and blood sugar levels, nutrient deficiencies, and changes to your metabolism.  Fortunately, working with a registered dietitian can help you improve your eating behaviors and help you feel your best. 

Short-Term Effects of Skipping Meals

Energy and Blood Sugar Levels

In the short term, you may experience reduced energy levels and more difficulty concentrating after a skipped meal.

This may be a result of lower blood sugar levels that can occur after skipping a meal, especially breakfast. This is because skipping breakfast greatly extends the amount of time you fast overnight. 

Your body and brain need glucose to function optimally and allow you to have the energy and focus to complete your daily tasks. Research shows that skipping breakfast negatively impacts cognitive function and reduces attention span.

Simple tasks can take twice as long, which can be very frustrating. 

Diabetes

People with diabetes are at a higher risk of experiencing dangerously low blood sugar levels after skipping a meal (especially if they take blood-sugar-lowering medications.) Low blood sugar levels can cause symptoms of dizziness, shakiness, and irritability. 

Cravings

Low blood sugar levels from a skipped meal or meals may also increase hunger and cravings. Research shows that people tend to crave high-carbohydrate foods when blood sugar levels are below normal. 

In some people, these types of cravings can lead to overeating or binge eating. When this happens frequently, it can be a sign of disordered eating or an eating disorder, which should be addressed with your healthcare team.

Long-Term Effects of Skipping Meals

Metabolic Impacts

Aside from being a risk factor for eating disorders, skipping meals can also impact your weight and metabolism over time. Many studies have demonstrated that a low eating frequency, especially skipping breakfast, is associated with weight gain and insulin resistance

This may be because research shows that people who skip meals tend to have a higher caloric intake for the rest of the day and have a lower diet quality. An irregular eating pattern may also increase the risk of developing metabolic syndrome

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Diet Quality

Skipping meals can negatively impact your nutritional intake in the long term. Research shows that people who regularly skipped breakfast or lunch had lower intakes of fruit, whole grains, vegetables, seafood, and plant proteins in their diets. 

Cardiovascular Risk

A large study from 2023 found that in older adults (over 40 years old), skipping breakfast was associated with an increased risk of heart disease. In addition, skipping lunch or dinner was associated with a higher chance of all-cause mortality. 

What to Do if You or Someone You Know Is Skipping Meals

If you’ve noticed a friend or family member routinely skipping meals and suspect an eating disorder is at play, bring up your observations with your loved one. Offer your support by checking in regularly and helping them take the first step toward treatment.

If your child or teen is skipping meals as part of an eating disorder, you may be able to enroll them in a treatment program. 

There are support groups for parents, close friends, and spouses of people with eating disorders that can provide a sense of community along with tips to help you be an advocate for your loved one. 

Tips for Overcoming an Eating Disorder

An eating disorder can skew a person’s perspectives and thoughts, making them think they don’t need to recover. However, there are many reasons to pursue treatment, like improving physical and mental health as well as quality of life.  

The best way to recover from an eating disorder is to seek professional help early. First, talk to your primary care doctor about your eating concerns. 

Once a diagnosis has been made, you can begin to build your multidisciplinary treatment team, including doctors, dietitians, and psychologists. This way, your eating disorder can be treated from all angles, and you can learn how to stop disordered eating behaviors and thoughts, build a healthy relationship with food, and improve your body image. 

Eating disorder recovery is a journey that often comes with ups and downs. When you’re having a hard day, remember to have self-compassion. It can be helpful to build a support network of family and friends to encourage and motivate you throughout your recovery journey. 

When to Seek Professional Help for an Eating Disorder

Eating disorder behaviors exist on a spectrum, sometimes making it hard to know when to seek help. Some of the most common signs of an eating disorder include: 

  • Preoccupation with body weight, food, and dieting. 
  • Skipping meals or only eating small amounts at a time. 
  • Eliminating entire food groups. 
  • Binge eating, or eating large amounts of food in a sitting with feeling a lack of control. 
  • Purging, or self-induced vomiting. 
  • Laxative use. 
  • Extreme body image concerns.
  • Rigid exercise regimen. 
  • Significant weight fluctuations. 

You can use a screening tool to help you identify if your eating behaviors and thoughts align with an eating disorder. However, you don’t have to wait until you meet eating disorder criteria to seek help if you are experiencing disordered eating or body image concerns. 

Research shows that people who seek professional help earlier in their eating disorder experience greater recovery rates and fewer physical complications. 

Talk to your doctor about your concerns, and consider establishing care with a therapist and registered dietitian specializing in eating disorders to get the help you need. 

Takeaway

Though many people skip meals from time to time, routinely skipping meals may be a sign of an underlying eating disorder, especially when accompanied by other behaviors like restricting, binging, or body image concerns. 

Skipping meals can also impact your blood sugar levels, making it difficult to focus and causing a decrease in energy levels. Regularly skipping breakfast, in particular, may increase your risk of weight gain, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease. 

It’s important to seek care early if you feel you have an eating disorder to have the best possible recovery. 

How a Dietitian Can Help

If you skip meals often, it can be challenging to build back the habit of meal planning and preparing food in order to eat regularly throughout the day. 

A registered dietitian can help you overcome skipping meals by creating a realistic eating plan accounting for your food preferences and lifestyle. Additionally, your dietitian can play a role in addressing eating disorder thoughts that may be contributing to skipped meals. 

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Frequently Asked Questions

What happens when you skip all meals?

Skipping all meals may be a sign of a restrictive eating disorder, such as anorexia nervosa, which can cause serious complications if left untreated. In the short term, you may begin to feel dizzy, low energy, and have difficulty focusing. Over time, signs of starvation set in, resulting in dramatic weight loss and negative health impacts, like electrolyte and cardiac irregularities.

What is it called when you skip meals?

Skipping meals may also be known as intermittent fasting, a dietary practice in which a person only eats within a specific time frame each day. Skipping meals can also be a sign of a restrictive eating disorder, such as anorexia.

What causes people to skip meals?

People skip meals for many reasons– busy schedules, low appetite, forgetting– but when skipping meals becomes a regular occurrence, it may be a sign of an underlying eating disorder. Some people intentionally skip meals or fast for cultural or religious purposes or in an attempt to lose weight.

References

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