Skipping Meals

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For people with busy or irregular schedules, it can be easy to skip a couple of meals without really trying to — and sometimes without giving the situation much notice. Have an after-work snack instead of a real dinner, then skip breakfast the next day, and before you know it, you’ve fasted for 18 or 20 hours. It should be no surprise that according to past studies, skipping meals leads to a greater caloric intake once a person sits down to eat again. But until now, it was unclear exactly what foods someone is most likely to choose at such a meal.

A study published earlier this week in the Archives of Internal Medicine demonstrates that short-term food deprivation leads to cravings for — you guessed it — carbohydrates. According to a post on the study at the New York Times blog Well, researchers at Cornell University recruited 128 students, each of whom was assigned to either a fasting group or a control group. The fasting group was instructed not to eat after 6 pm the day before a noon buffet lunch, leading to an 18-hour fasting period. This process was staggered so that each lunch served 10–12 participants from both the fasting group and the control group. Using video cameras as well as serving tables with scales embedded in them, the researchers measured how much of each food participants took and ate.

Whether or not participants had fasted made a significant difference in what food they chose to eat first from the buffet. Members of the control group and the fasting group chose a protein-rich food (chicken or cheese) at about the same rate, 31% versus 33%. But members of the fasting group were much more likely to choose a carbohydrate-rich food (rolls or French fries) than were members of the control group, at a rate of 35% versus 13%. They were also much less likely to start with a vegetable (carrots or green beans), 25% versus 56%. Among women, the differences were even more striking: in the control group, 64% started with vegetables, while only 4% began with carbohydrate foods. But in the fasting group, fully 53% of women began with carbs, while only 20% began with veggies. First-choice foods were more than symbolically important; overall, participants ate 47% more of whatever food they started with (measured in calories), compared with participants who started with other foods.

It makes sense, of course, that very hungry people would reach for carbohydrates. After all, they are the fastest way to get glucose into the bloodstream, where it can be used by “hungry” cells throughout the body. But, of course, for people with diabetes, eating too much carbohydrate in one sitting carries the risk of hyperglycemia in the short term and damage from persistently high blood glucose levels in the long term.

Do you often skip meals or go long periods without eating? If so, does this happen intentionally or unintentionally? Do you crave carbohydrates more when you’ve gone longer without eating? Have you found any foods that satisfy carb cravings without spiking your blood glucose? Will a carb craving pass if you eat a non-carbohydrate food — say, a protein-rich food such as chicken or cheese? Leave a comment below!

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