Weekdays can get pretty busy, with meetings, responding to emails, navigating the school drop-off line and generally trying to get work done. So, sometimes you might forget to eat lunch or just not take the time for a lunch break.
Skipping lunch, though, is a mistake, nutritionists say.
Breakfast is often called the most important meal of the day, but lunch is equally important, said Jen Bruning, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
“Generally speaking, it’s helpful to eat more of your daily calories earlier in the day because you have so much of the day left to be fueled for,” Bruning said.
Skipping any meal makes it tougher to meet your nutritional needs for the day, Bruning added. No matter how busy you are, regularly eating lunch and stepping away from work keeps you fueled, and offers a mental break and time to refresh.
“For those at home with family, it models a healthy relationship with food to kids,” Bruning said. “It can give us social time with co-workers and strengthen professional relationships, which is an important piece of a healthy work environment.”
Research suggests about 60% of Americans eat lunch at their desks while working. But workers who take daily lunch breaks report higher job satisfaction and productivity. Eating lunch is also good for your eating habits, metabolism and mood.
Why are you skipping lunch?
If you’re a regular lunch skipper, it’s important to ask yourself why. This is what Linda Anegawa, a board-certified physician in internal medicine and obesity medicine and medical director at virtual health platform PlushCare, often asks patients who say they omit meals.
“I always want to know about eating intervals in general, such as how often and when they eat,” Anegawa said.
Are you skipping lunch because your schedule is too busy and you don’t have time to eat? Are you trying to cut calories? Is it because your co-workers don’t take a lunch break? Are you going to a workout class during lunchtime?
“All of these would be a concern,” Anegawa said. “We can’t ignore the body’s need for nutrition.”
Also, think about how you feel when you skip lunch compared to when you eat a midday meal, she added. How are your energy levels in the afternoon? Do you feel the urge to snack? Do you get hangry?
“These are all important questions in helping develop a different habit that will serve your body better,” Anegawa said.
How skipping lunch affects your body
Skipping lunch every once in a while isn’t a big deal. But if it becomes a habit, Bruning said, your body adjusts to a “lower intake of fuel,” and that can be detrimental to your health.
“This could result in lowered metabolism over time, and an increased risk of nutrient deficiencies,” she added.
It might heighten cravings and lead you to consume more calories in the evening. “Calories aside, eating too much at one sitting can also cause blood sugar and insulin to spike,” Bruning said. Over time, this can lead to higher blood sugar levels, insulin resistance and potentially diabetes.
Skipping lunch may also cause you to choose less-healthy food options later in the day, when you’re feeling ravenous. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study found that people who didn’t eat breakfast or lunch ate fewer fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seafood and plant-based proteins.
Not eating enough throughout the day can cause your energy levels to drop, which might affect your mood, productivity and concentration, Anegawa said. Research shows that restricting your eating can increase irritability and moodiness, decrease motivation and potentially lead to anxiety and depression.
“I don’t advocate for regular meal skipping,” Bruning said. “Even a small dinner helps to provide you with the final energy of the day so that your body can do its important repair work while you sleep.”
What time should you eat lunch?
There’s no one-time-suits-all for lunchtime — it’s a personal choice, Bruning said. Four to five hours after breakfast works well for most people. However, some people may need to eat at certain times, because they need to take medication or have a scheduled lunch break.
“I like to counsel patients to listen to their bodies to tell them when to eat lunch, rather than to rely on external cues,” Anegawa said.
Time can get away from you sometimes, too. On days when it’s suddenly 3 p.m. and you haven’t had lunch, Bruning recommends eating a snack, rather than just waiting until dinnertime.
“You’ll help to stabilize your blood sugar levels without totally filling up and help stop yourself from overeating when dinnertime rolls around or making poor dietary choices due to excessive hunger,” Bruning said.
What should you eat for lunch?
The best lunch is a balanced meal with fiber-rich carbs like beans, lean protein and lots of fruits and vegetables. Bruning said these foods keep you full longer and prevent afternoon sluggishness.
Just don’t eat too much. Overeating at lunch might make you feel sleepy and struggle to concentrate, Anegawa said.
Getting in the habit of eating lunch and taking a midday break benefits your overall health. If skipping lunch is your norm, Bruning suggests finding time to start eating lunch a couple of days a week to see how it affects your day, and then progressing to having lunch every day.
“Do you have more energy? More focus? Less distraction from hunger pangs?” she said. Once you realize how much better you feel, you’ll probably make sure to take your daily lunch break.