Cravings and Skipping Meals

Recently I came across interesting study conducted at the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University that puts some science to a behavior  I have seen play out in my clients repeatedly.   They studied how our hunger responds when we skip meals, and even more interestingly how hunger influences our food choices.

When individuals sat down to eat after a an overnight fast participants were much more likely to head straight for the high calorie carbohydrate foods and skip the protein, fats and vegetables.

They were more likely to eat starches such as bread and French fries before anything else.  This led them to eat 45% more calories from these foods than those who hadn’t missed the previous meal.   The meal skippers were also less likely to eat vegetables.  Why?  The starving brain wants glucose and energy, which it can get more easily from starches vs vegetables or protein.  This is the body’s way to maximize its re-feeding efficiency.

Biologically this makes sense because missing meals or even a short fast equates to food insecurity in the brain—a threat to survival.  I know what you’re thinking – food scarcity?  Not where I live! But your brain has no idea when you are restricting food on purpose and will be eating again soon… the primal hunger drive just kicks in. That’s the drive that sends us out searching for food (high calorie food) to ensure our survival.

Further, brain imaging shows that the reward pathways in our brains (which are closely linked to survival) are more highly activated by high calorie foods after we skip or miss breakfast.

Therefore the moral of the study….eat regularly, don’t try and trick your body by skipping meals and fasting.  Secondly when hungry make sure to limit your exposure to starchy, high calorie carbohydrates at the beginning of the meal – ensure you start with less calorically dense foods and more balanced meals.

Reference:First Foods Most: After 18-Hour Fast, People Drawn to Starches First and Vegetables Brian Wansink, PhD; Aner Tal, PhD; Mitsuru Shimizu, PhD
Arch Intern Med. 2012;172(12):961-963. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2012.1278