Meal Skipping: Good or Bad?

Many people find that the Shangri-La diet makes it easy to skip meals. It is natural to ask: How does meal skipping affect overall health? Having eaten one meal per day for the last six years, let’s just say I care about the answer.

For more than half a century it has been clear that calorie restriction is a powerful way to increase the lifespan of rats and at least a few other species. An experiment with monkeys seems to be headed for the same result: calorie restriction increases lifespan.

Calorie restriction is a complex treatment. Calorie-restricted rats eat less, they lose weight, they may eat less often, they eat less protein, they eat less carbohydrate, and so on. Which of these changes cause the health benefits? A researcher at the National Institute of Aging named Mark Mattson has been asking this question. He and his co-workers have discovered that the benefits of calorie restriction can be achieved by eating less frequently, even when there is little or no weight loss. The implication is that skipping meals, if anything, is likely to be beneficial.

One study, published in 2003, compared four groups of mice. One group (ad lib) got all the food they wanted every day. Another group (calorie restriction) got 60% of the amount of food that the first group got. A third group (intermittent fed) got all the food it wanted but only every other day. A fourth group got the same overall amount of food as the intermittent-fed group, but without a one-day “fast” between feedings. After 20 weeks, the calorie-restriction mice weighed about half what the ad-lib mice weighed; the other two groups weighed about 90% of what the ad-lib mice weighed. The most interesting measure was what happened when kainic acid (which kills neurons) was injected into the brains of the mice. The measure was how many neurons survive. The results were not easy to completely sum up but they did show that intermittent feeding was more protective than ad lib feeding, and at least as protective as calorie restriction. In other research from Mattson’s lab, intermittent feeding has been found to be healthier than ad lib feeding in other ways — for example, a rat study found protection against heart-attack damage. A review article by Mattson concluded that “both caloric (energy) restriction (CR) and reduced meal frequency/intermittent fasting can suppress the development of various diseases and can increase life span in rodents.”

What about humans? In January I was contacted by Dr. James Johnson, Dr. Donald Laub, and Sujit John, who had been studying the effect of intermittent feeding on humans — starting with themselves. Johnson had tried to lose weight via an on-day-off-day diet: One day you eat normally, the next you eat 20% of what you would usually eat. I think he based this diet on Mattson’s results. Eating only every other day — the usual regime in Mattson’s experiments — was just too hard but Johnson found that eating a percentage on the order of 20-30% of usual intake on the off days was just bearable and did produce weight loss. Johnson found that not only did it produce weight loss, it had many other beneficial effects, such as an improvement in asthma symptoms. He first noticed these improvements when he tried the diet himself (he wanted to lose weight); later he saw similar improvements when his friends did the diet, the same path I followed with SLD. Johnson, Laub, and John have just published an article in Medical Hypotheses about their ideas. They were interested in my weight-loss ideas as a way of making the on-and-off regime more bearable — to reduce the hunger involved. “The oil and sugar water seem to work well,” Dr. Laub wrote me recently.

Here is the abstract of their Medical Hypotheses paper:

Restricting caloric intake to 60-70% of normal adult weight maintenance requirement prolongs lifespan 30-50% and confers near perfect health across a broad range of species. Every other day feeding produces similar effects in rodents, and profound beneficial physiologic changes have been demonstrated in the absence of weight loss in ob/ob mice. Since May 2003 we have experimented with alternate day calorie restriction, one day consuming 20-50% of estimated daily caloric requirement and the next day ad lib eating, and have observed health benefits starting in as little as 2 weeks, including insulin resistance, asthma, seasonal allergies, infectious diseases of viral, bacterial and fungal origin (viral URI, recurrent bacterial tonsillitis, chronic sinusitis, periodontal disease), autoimmune disorder (rheumatoid arthritis), osteoarthritis, symptoms due to CNS inflammatory lesions (Tourette’s, Meniere’s) cardiac arrhythmias (PVCs, atrial fibrillation), menopause related hot flashes. We hypothesize that other many conditions would be delayed, prevented or improved, including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, brain injury due to thrombotic stroke atherosclerosis, NIDDM, congestive heart failure.
Our hypothesis is supported by an article from 1957 in the Spanish medical literature which due to a translation error has been construed by several authors to be the only existing example of calorie restriction with good nutrition. We contend for reasons cited that there was no reduction in calories overall, but that the subjects were eating, on alternate days, either 900 calories or 2300 calories, averaging 1600, and that body weight was maintained. Thus they consumed either 56% or 144% of daily caloric requirement. The subjects were in a residence for old people, and all were in perfect health and over 65. Over three years, there were 6 deaths among 60 study subjects and 13 deaths among 60 ad lib-fed controls, non-significant difference. Study subjects were in hospital 123 days, controls 219, highly significant difference. We believe widespread use of this pattern of eating could impact influenza epidemics and other communicable diseases by improving resistance to infection. In addition to the health effects, this pattern of eating has proven to be a good method of weight control, and we are continuing to study the process in conjunction with the NIH.

Huh. My question is: Am I skipping enough meals?

9 Replies to “Meal Skipping: Good or Bad?”

  1. Maybe I’m just working from common-belief here, but I’ve always heard that skipping meals slows down your metabolism- like your body goes “uh oh, food is scarce, better conserve while I can!”…

    How does this belief fit in with the calorie-restriction/skipping meals idea?

    I’ve been on the SLD for 5 days now, and have been eating fewer meals (used to eat 5 small meals a day, now eating about 3 small)… and I’m GAINING weight. With less calories eaten. Wonder what that’s all about? I’m wondering (perhaps stupidly, but who knows) if it’s my body slowing down my metabolism to conserve the food that I AM taking in…..

  2. I’m very interested to see you post about this, as intermittant fasting has been another “diet” interest of mine for several years. I have never been able to stick to the regimen for very long, although it does work great when I can do it. I might give it another try with SLD.

    You might be interested in checking out this site.
    It’s the blog of a guy who has been fasting every other day for 6 months and has lost over 40 lbs.

    Heatherlyn, what you say is indeed what they tell us. However, numerous studies have found that daily meal frequency has no effect on metabolism. I don’t know if the results also extend to bi-daily meal frequency, but at the very least I wouldn’t be worried about eating 3 meals a day instead of 5. My personal belief is that forcing yourself to eat when you’re not hungry is the very worst thing an overweight person can be doing – you’re just teaching yourself NOT to listen to your body. See this post for more info:

    Many people who have started SLD have seen the reduced appetite come in before they started losing, and have even gained weight first. Give it a couple of weeks for things to balance out.

  3. Who really now is engaged in the control of health? To mine it neglected the large pharmaceutical companies and the medical centers. There should be a centralized management WBR LeoP

  4. Having recently read about Johnson’s interesting method, and having comsumed oils with SLD (consuming 1200 – 1500 average daily calories) for 2 months with -8 lb and -11 1/4 ” losses to date, I’m going to give the Johnson UpDayDownDay method a try along with the SLD tasteless (oil) calories. I’m going to experiment and try not using the oil on the UpDay, rather, only consuming it in one dose on the DownDay, but I will probably return to using it on the UpDay, especially if there are measurable results (I’ve been in plateau according to the scale, but not according to the measuring tape). I’ve wanted to do some kind of fasting for a time, but have previously not had the willpower, but have had headaches trying it. I think the SLD, which has maintained my previous weight losses and continued losses through the 8 lbs and 11 1/4″, while providing very good appetite suppression, just might give me the appetite suppression to handle the DownDay of Johnson’s modified intermittent fasting plan.

    Thanks for bringing us the Shangri-La Diet / SLD (not diet). losing-it

  5. A lot of it comes down to personal preference and lifestyle factors, but restricted calorie intake does affect quality of life in my opinion. Man has been eating for pleasure and satisfaction for generations and even though it’s abused nowadays due to food abundance this aspect is often overlooked.

    It’s important to also distinguish between “weight” loss and “fat” loss, as a loss in muscle has other detrimental affects on metabolism, well-being and lifespan.

  6. I quit SLD because regular use of oil was making me nauseous, but I’m going to try it again as part of a fasting regimen, where I use oil on the “undereating” days to help reduce appetite. I’m planning to fast 1-2x/week as suggested by Eat. Stop. Eat, with the “fasting” being a few hundred calories in 24 hours.

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