Home Did You Know What Happens When You Don’t Eat Often Enough

What Happens When You Don’t Eat Often Enough

by Erika Nicole Kendall

I’m not a fan of meal skipping. I used to do it “accidentally” when I thought that something else was more important than eating (read: like watching paint dry) but it was, in part, also because I thought that skipping meals would help me lose weight. I mean, I’d be cutting calories by skipping a meal and going 7-8 hours without eating, right?

I’d just look forward to my square meal that day. It might’ve been a BIG square, but a square, nonetheless.

For me, it was hard. I was always hungry. I mean, I could not wait to dig in at the next meal. I’d grab the largest plate, and take as much food as I could fit on my plate. If I wanted seconds, I’d get ’em. No big deal, right? I mean, the last time I ate was six hours ago!

It was a while before I was able to stop this series of bad habits. Yes. Series of bad habits.

First… why am I always hungry? Is it because the quality of the food I was always eating couldn’t fill me up?

If you watched the clip above, you already know. Our processed foods are broken down to their most basic parts, mixed in with preservatives (which help, you know, preserve the final product), flavor additives, water, flour, various forms of salt, then manipulated to be whatever they want to sell us. The same ground up chicken carcass (which is what is in that photo) can be chicken patties, chicken nuggets, chicken fingers, “diced chicken,” the chicken in your chicken pot pie, the chicken in your soup… whatever. Just look for “mechanically separated [animal] parts.” You won’t have to look too hard.

Once it’s broken down to create this… goo… chemicals are used to hold it in place to form whatever shape it’s going to take. Once it meets your saliva and enters your body, it breaks right back down to the goo… with no fiber inside to help push it out. It essentially deflates inside of your system, making it easier to consume more calories because you’re “not full yet.” Couple all of this with the fact that it takes approximately 20 minutes for your brain to get the signal from your digestive system that you’re “full,” and you start to see why a food that breaks down this quickly is a recipe for disaster – a breaded chicken breast on wheat bread breaks down much more slowly than a chicken patty sandwich on white bread, takes longer to chew (buying you time until that 20 minute mark… see what that 30 bites was important?), takes longer to digest (thus leaving you feeling fulfilled longer), and keeps you from overindulging. You’re getting that “full” feeling for less calories. You’re not scarfing it down because it’s breaking down faster than it can fill you up… only to find that “all-of-a-sudden-I-feel-like-I-ate-too-much” feeling arrive.

Then… if I’m always hungry when I sit down to eat, how likely is it that I’m going to overstuff myself just because I’m trying to rid myself of that “OMG SO HUNGRY OM NOM NOM” feeling?

This is why portion sizes have doubled and tripled over the past few years… the more processed our foods have become, the more we have to eat in order to remain full and the more our bodies compel us to eat because the foods lack the nutrients our bodies are looking for. That’s important. A processed food diet relies heavily on that “full feeling” to identify when we are “satisfied,” as opposed to the naturally-occurring chemical and neurological processes of the body that tell us to stop eating. So, in being ruled by both of those instead of just the natural processes of the body, our compulsion to overeat multiplies. All bad.

Next, why was I grabbing the largest plate?

When you are first converting to clean eating, every decision you make involving food has to be conscious. You have to be aware. So everything from the piece of peppermint you had after breakfast to the taste-testing you did while cooking dinner, they all have to conscious. You have to know that food is going into your mouth. You also have to know how much you’re giving yourself.

Having said that… let’s talk about the best way to game the system: Your plate.

I’m willing to bet it’s huge. You know how I know this? Because mine are huge. Massive, even. My plates were a gift to me from a dear friend, and though they’re a gorgeous set – complete with tea cups, saucers, bowls and ginormous plates – they’re killin’ me.

When we make our plates, we literally work to fill the plate. Show me someone who is comfortable with making their plate and having only half of it filled, and I’ll show you someone who either (a) is using plates that they didn’t buy or (b) is extremely conscious of their portion sizes (even though they may not admit that part to you.) It’s just a fact of life.

Don’t get me wrong – there’s a point where you no longer have to worry about portion sizes because this, like the old habits, does start to solidify itself as a new habit. But you still have to go through the growing pains. For now, that includes the basics.

Now… take it a step further. If I’ve got giant plates, I’m going back for seconds… and science basically proves that I’m going to seek to fill my plate – whenever I fill my plate? It’s a recipe for overeating, accidental or otherwise.

The reality is that going long stretches of time without eating, or waiting until you get that “starving” feeling, is bad for the body. They body becomes accustomed to expecting very little food, causing it to hold onto the stored energy supply (read: fat) and making it difficult to lose weight.

Once upon a time, in a land not very far from your home… lived mankind. No fast cars, no shiny structures, no skyscrapers, nothing. Just man.. rock… and animals.

See, this worked for man because his only task was to hunt wildlife, and gather his kill for his family. That was his responsibility. His purpose was to bring the salt and fat from the animal to the family. Not work, not bills… just hunt. Because life was much simpler then, this was man’s sole source of stress.

One day, man could not hunt. Every time he threw his spear, he’d miss his prey. He just couldn’t catch SQUAT! His family was to go hungry and he just… he couldn’t take it. The stress started to build up inside of him.

Because stress about the inability to eat is the only source of stress for man, his body became used to the eventual chain of events. His body knows: Lots of stress = lack of food coming in. How did his body react? His body decided to hold on to what it had – by way of diminishing the amount of energy his body could exert all at one time, by way of making sure his body took a very long time to lose weight, by way of making sure it held onto every pound and fat cell it could. This bodily reaction would only further compel man to step up his hunting skills… why? Because he didn’t want to feel that way! He didn’t want his family to feel that way! He had to get his caveman hustle on! When man was finally able to tackle that antelope or whatever-what-have-you, the fats and salts in the meat were sooooo satisfying that they would cure man of the bodily reaction to stress.

Let me explain. Though the above passage relates specifically to emotional eating, it still explains how the body approaches the feeling of famine. The body slows down on its expenditure of energy. I didn’t – at first – acknowledge a tired feeling… but I absolutely felt a boost of energy when I added to my eating schedule.

And yes – I gave myself an eating schedule! I packed away an apple, a pear, an orange, grapefruit slices – something – so that I could have something to bite into whenever my alarm went off.

Yes. I set an alarm. Whenever it went off, it said “Dig in, baby!” and that’s exactly what I did. After that… that “hungry” feeling was completely foreign to me. My energy levels increased. My weight loss couldn’t stall. I had a regular energy supply coming in, so my body could feel more comfortable with burning off energy. From here, calorie counting could actually produce better results. (If I’m not burning energy, any calories I take in will be stored as fat, remember?)

There’s also the issue of nourishing my body throughout the day. I wouldn’t go 6 or 7 hours without feeding an infant, right? Why? Because they need nourishment for their bodies to grow and function properly.

How is the adult body any different? We need not only the constant energy source, but we need the nourishment! Our bodies cannot function as well as it should if its only working on limited resources. We absolutely must eat… and nothing’s wrong with eating a little more often!

No one’s talking about full meals – cucumber slices, carrot sticks, apples, pears, mangoes (I am notorious for slaughtering a whole mango), cashews, sunflower seeds… whatever. Just a little something to tide you over. If you’re not hungry, nothing should be compelling you to overeat. If you’re eating whole foods, nothing should be leaving you so starving that you overeat until the next meal. If you’re eating a little bit regularly (hungry or not), your body can function properly and it’ll start to believe that it can safely release the fat stored on your body…. since it believes that it will get a regular supply of energy (calories) again.

In short… this, again, goes back to what I believe is the primary principle of weight loss. Neglecting to nourish yourself is neglecting your health and well-being. That neglect will be present in our bodily function as well as our weight. Don’t do it to yourself – set an alarm on your phone, pack a bag of apples and get your Johnny (Jane?) Appleseed on!

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Jubilance January 10, 2011 - 1:51 PM

Just so I’m clear, you’re saying that one should be eating at a regular interval even if they aren’t “hungry”?

I’ve noticed that as I transitioned to a Primal/Paleo based lifestyle, my focus on whole foods & more protein yielded the side effect of me not feeling hungry as often. To the point where I wasn’t interested in eating lunch, or if I did, it would be a handful of almonds or a small salad. I don’t want to be mindlessly eating simply because my schedule says I should, I’m trying to be more mindful of my eating & eat only when I feel hungry.

For weight loss, especially fat loss, is it better to eat on a regular schedule even when you aren’t hungry, or to simply go with how your body feels & eat only when hungry?

Erika January 10, 2011 - 6:06 PM

For body development PERIOD, you should never skip meals. If you’re waiting on HUNGER to tell you to eat, you’re doing it wrong, mama.

Hunger is a LAST MINUTE message. You should never wait on a reminder to nourish yourself. Your body slows down until it gets what it needs. That includes weight loss.

And to follow that up… I haven’t experienced a hunger pang in at least 14 months. I don’t even remember the feeling.

Cyn January 10, 2011 - 3:01 PM

I needed this one. I’ve always had a small sporadic
appetite! Rather than being famished when I finally eat and
overeating, I still don’t eat much. Even with the junk I love, I
rarely eat all or even half. I am notorious, especially at home on
weekends to not eat until 5 or 6pm. My body is most definitely
saving and storing everything. I pack a bunch on little snacks but
I still find myself not eating. I need to set my alarm and force
myself to eat at least a few bites of something.

JoAnna January 10, 2011 - 6:01 PM

I kinda need this, Erika. I used to eat whenever I was worried, or depressed, or upset… So I trained myself to only eat when I felt hungry(ie: drink a glass of water), and then not to snack, but to sit down to a meal. Now you (and my doc) are suggesting I eat every 3-4 hours, snack on stuff, when I’m NOT hungry… It’s enough to make a girl’s head swim in total confusion.

My compromise is taking a handful of nuts and a tangerine/half an apple to eat after my workouts, or if I’m out shopping/errand running. This keeps my blood glucose levels pretty even and staves the tempting aromas of fried grease from fastfood places. The smell of burger + low blood sugar is a bad combination when leaving the gym! And I always have a good homecooked meal within 15 to 45mins tops of getting home.

Erika January 10, 2011 - 6:07 PM

YES! Girl, don’t play with that! That’s also a big thing – cravings + hunger = “I give up… let me go get that burger.” I find that if I’m not hungry, I am better equipped against a craving and can go on about my business.

milaxx April 30, 2011 - 8:26 PM

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. i could easily go until 2 or 3 pm without eating. I am an insomniac and *really* not a morning person. In fact even now the thought of food in the morning makes me nauseous.

A visit to a naturalpath helped me finally understand I had to eat in the morning. On days when I can’t bear the thought of breakfast I start by nibbling on some almonds. An hour later I eat a piece of fruit. On a gym day I try to eat an egg in some form. I will admit however if it’s one of those days when I really cant deal with food, my post gym meal is vegan protein powder mixed with rice milk, flax powder and a teaspoon of almond butter or vegan protein powder mixed with whatever fruits and veg I have juiced.

Kris @Krazy_Kris May 30, 2011 - 9:02 PM

So interesting because I was a classic undereater – not in the clinical sense – but just in the I’m too busy or I’m not hungry sense. It’s crazy cuz my body was so out of whack because I’d retrained it in such bad ways. And my metabolism? It was ugly. I started with breakfast – just for today I will eat before 10 am. Did that for a couple of weeks and BAM I started getting hungry in the morning. Did that all, little by little for each snack/meal. It’s weird because I’ll get hungry and think, “I just ate” – I’ll look at my watch and see that it’s been 4 hours. I can’t even IMAGINE how I went so long without eating before.
Not to mention the choices I make when I’m starved. When I’m hungry, I crave and choose crap. Not letting myself get toooooo hungry is absolutely KEY in fueling myself well.
Thanks so much!

Kiana August 23, 2011 - 1:01 PM

Such a good post. I was this person, “oh I haven’t eaten all day, let me go to Burger King, get 4 tenders, a whopper with bacon and cheese, and a cream pie”. A whole day’s worth of calories in one huge meal. This problem is actually why I started following your blog and your meal plans. I hated always feeling hungry and then I hated the incredibly nauseous feeling that I had from cutting too many calories (i.e. starving myself) in an effort to lose weight. A week ago Sunday, I felt so sick from having not eaten that I knew I needed to do something different. A friend of mine follows you on facebook, so I “liked” your page and then I saw the meal plans and the testimonials about them and how people are losing weight but are never hungry. I’ve only been eating on the meal plan and following your snack suggestions since this past Saturday and I have not been crazy hungry at all, I don’t overeat, and I actually feel healthier. I realize the difference is in eating whole, real food. I wish I could show you a pic of my roasted chicken. It is so cute! And it tastes really good and I was proud of myself for having cooked a whole bird. It’s a fulfilling feeling to know that I’m making my own food.

Tremilla November 5, 2011 - 2:43 AM

“The more processed the foods, the more you have to eat to get full.” Thank you! You don’t know how long that questioned has went unanswered. As the years passed by I noticed that I would eat a whole meal from a fast-food restaurant and not get full. When I started eating a whole sub or almost a whole pizza by myself (6 slices to be exact) I knew something had to change immediately! I have moved on to “real” food and found that I am in fact getting full. I’m even trying out new vegetables. This was an eye-opener.

Lisette April 20, 2012 - 12:07 PM

It’s so interesting to me how we “train” our bodies to not eat regularly. Think about it. Healthy babies “eat” all day long, every few hours. Those of you who have dealth with the midnight feedings know what I’m talking about 🙂 It might not be much, but they are sucking down that milk regularly. It’s not until we get older that we retrain our bodies to not eat regularly.

As a teacher and parent, I get frustrated by the fact that our school systems perpetuate an unhealthy eating schedule. Some students eat breakfast (that’s if they eat breakfast) at 5-6 a.m., and they don’t eat again until noon unless they sneak and eat something in or between classes. I eat my snacks (and drink my water), and I let my students see me eating. We talk about how important it is to eat regularly. There have even been a few times when students have asked me why they didn’t see me eat my snack yet. This is important to me as a high school teacher because I was one of those girls who wouldn’t eat at school because I wasn’t hungry.

I do find that having an “eating schedule” is beneficial for my health. If I wait until I’m hungry to eat, I might skip that protein or those complex carbohydrates that I really need, especially considering that I’m trying to reduce my body fat percentage. Imagine that! Eating regularly to reduce fat.

Liz June 27, 2012 - 11:55 AM

What about at night? I find my biggest problem is that I will eat every 2-3 hours during the day, and I will usually wake up starving in the morning because I haven’t eaten. Is that normal?

Erika Nicole Kendall June 27, 2012 - 6:28 PM

It’s normal when your meals are majority refined carbs… switch around the make-up of your meals – more veggies, more lean proteins, less refined carbs – and see if you avoid the starving feeling then?

Liz June 27, 2012 - 7:15 PM

I generally avoid carbs altogether, like for breakfast I’ll have oatmeal, egg whites, and fruit, lunch and dinner are some vegetable and a chicken breast, and all of my snacks are fruit or almonds. Could it be that I’m not eating large enough meals?

Erika Nicole Kendall June 28, 2012 - 9:58 AM

Definitely. You have to test with what works best with you and your body, mama. Don’t be afraid to play around with meal sizes, and keep a close eye on how your body responds to different combinations.

margarita January 30, 2013 - 5:27 AM

I do feel really.hungry

effie February 19, 2013 - 1:03 AM

Hi Erika,

Always had a problem with this one. I typically don’t eat a lot, and I’m very health conscious – but the weight never seemed to fall off.

Finally I realised that I need to eat smaller meals, more often – so now I do micro meals every hour or two. It’s much more effective, I find – I’m feeding my body with good nutrients.

This morning I’m having cucumber juice and a bit later I’ll have half a very small salad w/ a small portion of chicken breast. I put almonds and pumpkin/sunflower seeds + a handful of pine nuts in it for a delightful source of protein. Then in between those I have some more fruit + vegetable juice.

I had a salad yesterday, and this morning I work up refreshed and full of energy.

Jeiel February 19, 2013 - 6:50 AM

I found this to be useful information. Although I don’t have a weight issue, I definitely have a nutrition issue. Acid reflux has prevented me from keeping food down for over three days. This is causing all kinds of trouble with my body. Your article helped me understand what is happening to me. Thank you!
P.S. Don’t worry I have a doctors appointment

Angela April 19, 2013 - 3:25 PM

How do you feel about the Special K shake in place of a meal?

Erika Nicole Kendall April 19, 2013 - 4:01 PM

Just say no.

Tara April 19, 2013 - 6:22 PM

I went three days literally STARVING and could not figure out why. I had been taking appetite suppressants but i stopped taking them and all the hunger my body was blocking seemed to come back with a vengence. I was the publishers weight before she lost it all. Thats what attracted me to this page. I try to stay positive but something just keeps telling that i will never lose this weight, then i keep failing at it.

tony June 18, 2013 - 12:30 PM

This make so much sense, how often should i eat? How many hours apart will be ideal? Can you give me a schedule to follow i need help

Tonya June 18, 2013 - 12:35 PM

I forgot the a its tonya

Jackie August 1, 2013 - 1:43 PM

I realized that I was doing this to myself earlier this year. I now eat 4 small meals with 3 (sometimes 4) snacks. Its amazing how I’m never starved. I also notice that I don’t get tired in the middle of the day like I used to when only eating 3 meals a day. I’ve also become very aware of my body. If I’ve worked and forgot a snack, my body reminds me…quickly! As for a schedule, I purchased Dr. Ian Smith’s Shred Revolution in January, which touts a regular eating schedule (with real food…no special shakes or supplements) and daily exercise. I followed it strictly for the initial 6 week period and had great results. I liked it so much it has become my new eating lifestyle! Its a great tool to assist you with getting on a regular schedule. I don’t even need my phone reminders any longer!

Z4 November 3, 2013 - 11:27 PM

I don’t often read articles of this nature, a kind of “I know how to eat, why read about it?” thing. I have to say I’m genuinely surprised!

Not only does it make sense but thinking about the way I currently eat, it’s absolutely illogical!

Kesha February 2, 2014 - 9:48 AM

This is a great website! In 2012 I lost 70 lbs on my own by eating healthier, reducing my portions and exercising. I have been maintaining my weight loss with ease for 1 year.

I’ve tried grazing throughout the day because I thought that is what you’re suppose to do. I quickly discovered eating smaller meals never satisfied me which made me hungry throughout the day which made me overeat. Then I tried eating 2 good-sized well-balanced meals and 1 snack a day and it has been truly life-changing for me.

I have my first meal at about 10 or 11am, a snack at 2pm and my last meal at around 5pm. I’m not under eating (I eat all of my calories needed for the day), I make sure I’m eating my healthy fats, proteins, carbs, fiber, fruits, veggies etc., I’m never hungry and most importantly my metabolism has not been damaged.

Some people in my life don’t agree with this, but my weight loss results has spoken for itself. 🙂 I’m a believer in trying different things to see what works for you and your lifestyle.

I just wanted to posted another way of eating in case someone out there is reading and had problems with eating 6 – 7 meals/snack a day.

Keep up the good work Erika!

Erika Nicole Kendall February 2, 2014 - 9:55 AM

I will say, I think there’s a huge difference between “grazing” and what I’m describing, here. Honestly, I never EVER felt satisfied when I was grazing, but there were a lot of reasons that contributed to that “why” – most importantly, a) the grazing was never macronutritionally in my favor and 2) it affected my meals and meal times in strange ways.

I’ve talked about eating fewer meals a day both here and at my EBONY.com column, mainly because meal count doesn’t contribute physiologically toward weight loss in the way that macronutrients do. That says nothing of the fact that intermittent fasting – which is what you’ve described here – doesn’t work for every lifestyle or every person, and could cause problems in other ways.

Chandra May 5, 2014 - 11:29 AM

Great inspiration, doing exercise and watching meals are keys when you are a full time worker.

Renada February 24, 2016 - 7:36 PM

Great article!
I worked 2nd shift(5pm – 130am) for over 15 years. I didn’t eat breakfast, but I would keep chunky soups at work for dinner and on the way to work I would stop at a fast food place for a sandwich and if I was bored with eating soup, I’d get a salad or an extra sandwich for dinner. If I got tired, I’d have a 20 ounce bottle of regular Mountain Dew. On the weekends I would eat around 3pm and again around 9pm.

I spent a year as a supervisor and gained about 20 lbs but only in my stomach. I was surprised when my doctor told me that I was under eating, that I needed to eat every 3-4 hours, eat better and that stress from the job was causing the weight gain in my stomach – also need 8 hrs of sleep daily.

I’ve been working days for 1.5 years and it’s been hard changing my bad habits. I have to force myself to eat regularly , I’ve been going to the gym for a few months and I HAVE to stay on a regular sleep schedule or I’m awake all night.

If only I could go back in time….

Brian in Florida March 4, 2016 - 1:12 PM

As a poor white male who does not eat as often or well enough food to be healthy, this article strangely hit the spot for me.

Very nice read that makes a lot of sense to me. I was searching for information on the health consequences of not eating enough and this was the only article I found that addressed the issue in the context I was looking for.

Now I can understand why I am so tired most of the time and can’t eat a lot even if I have it. I have lost my muscle tone and am storing a little “extra” (???? how do I have any extra!) in the belly, but I am not overweight at all likely under. I have to just start eating better foods more often and I will regain my appetite, strength and energy.

Thank you for writing this as I can tell you wrote from experience and with the soul intention of helping others. It is much appreciated and I have subscribed!!

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