Could skipping meals really have health benefits?

There's no data behind the standard three-meals-a-day routine. But there's emerging evidence for fasting.

Photo, iStock.

Photo, iStock.

In an article interviewing nutrition and longevity experts, a neuroscientist and a dietitian, the New York Times validated a long-held, unthinkable health taboo: skipping meals can be good for you. It challenges every deep-rooted eating habit engrained in us — from the importance of breakfast and three square meals to constant snacking throughout the day — and advocates the benefits of fasting, including reduced risk factors for diabetes, cancer, heart disease, slowing the aging process, and yes, even short-term weight loss.

Fasting, of course, is nothing new. Millions of Muslims fast from dawn to dusk for a month during Ramadan, and many Roman Catholics fast for 40 days during Lent. Judaism prescribes a 24-hour fast on Yom Kippur. But the main motivation in these cases are spiritual, not health.

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One type of fast entails eating all the day’s calories within a six-to-eight-hour window. This requires skipping breakfast and eating dinner earlier, so you are fasting anywhere between 16 to 18 hours a day. A time-restricted fast doesn’t reduce the amount of food you’ll eat and recent research has shown eating late is associated with weight loss success in overweight participants.

Another method, the “5:2” intermittent fasting plan, limits daily consumption to 500 calories for two non-consecutive days a week. There are no eating or drinking restrictions on the other five days, making it appealing since your social life is untouched for most of the week. It works on the idea that pre-agricultural hunter-gatherers did not have a steady supply of snacks or meals. Eating habits would depend on food availability, which worked because our ancestors’ bodies were able to function without food, or with little amounts, for up to weeks at a time.

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While the research on fasting is far from definite, there has also never been any evidence to suggest eating three meals a day holds any health benefits. If anything it may be unnatural to stick to the three rigid traditional meals: a study published in the journal Cell Metabolism last year found that adults who do not work shifts are erratically eating throughout the day without any set schedule.

Fasting is not for everyone. Research has predominantly only been done on healthy adults. It would be risky for children, teenagers, seniors, people with eating and metabolic disorders to fast. But for some, it may have benefits. And if you’re able to fast through hunger for most of the day, that self-control may just translate to better eating habits when you’re not fasting.

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