Skipping meals makes you dumb and fat

If you can't think straight at your meeting, it might have something to do with that doughnut you had for lunch.

(Photo: Getty)

The most important driver of your work performance isn’t your brain, your ambition, your leadership skill or your connections. It’s your health. You can’t perform to your highest potential unless your body is up to it. Your brain can’t be focused and creative if it’s exhausted and out of fuel. Your heart doesn’t care if you’re a hard-driving entrepreneur.

In my 10-plus years of managing the health of business leaders, I’ve often wondered how some of my clients could have won multimillion-dollar deals with their awful eating habits. They consumed jelly beans and coffee for breakfast at 4:30 a.m. before catching a 6 a.m. flight, then skipped lunch and opted for four to six cups of coffee through the day. They were proud to be tough road warriors.

And executives are not the only ones starving their bodies for the sake of perceived productivity. The latest results of the annual health survey conducted by Maclean’s magazine shows that Canadians skip meals a lot—30% of respondents always or sometimes skipped breakfast, and 20% said they often skipped lunch. A British supermarket chain, meanwhile, found that nearly 70% of people regularly missed at least one meal a day. Six out of 10 people surveyed said they were simply too busy to stop and eat.

The fact is that you can’t keep up this kind of lifestyle for long without hurting yourself physically and mentally. Studies show that skipping meals during the day and eating one large meal in the evening results in harmful metabolic changes. Meal skippers have elevated fasting glucose levels and a delayed insulin response—conditions that, if they persist long term, can lead to diabetes.

And it’s not just your body that weakens but your mind as well. Short-term brain function is diminished during times when our bodies have low sugar (know as hypoglycemia) as a result of not having eaten regularly and enough throughout each day. Simple tasks like typing become harder, as do tasks that require significant cognitive input, such as public speaking.

Mental acuity is also greatly affected by changes in blood sugar and adrenalin levels. Not eating, and living on coffee, during a vigorous day are literally not smart. The body secretes cortisol hormone as a response to physical stress (such as starvation), which in turn stimulates insulin secretion. A carbohydrate, or ‘sugar,’ craving ensues. If you give in to the temptation of a chocolate bar or a candy jar, these types of carbohydrates quickly metabolize into blood sugar, which rises for 60 to 90 minutes. During this spike, research shows that concrete and abstract memory recall, word fluency and reading speed all become impaired. To make matters worse, if this junk-food fuel is not all used up for physical activity, it gets stored in the form of body fat. Those cups of coffee you’re drinking with a bagel or muffin also stimulate cortisol.

So the next time you walk into a meeting and feel like your heart is racing, you can’t articulate exactly what you want to say and have trouble writing down what you’re hearing, ask yourself: Did you fuel your body properly?

Skipping meals makes you dumb and fat—it’s that simple. So follow the long-standing advice: Make sure you eat three meals a day. Balance those meals with the right amounts of carbohydrates (40% to 45%), ideally complex ones such as multi-grain bread, oatmeal, fruits and vegetables. Snack only on plain nuts and seeds. Balance the sugar peaks and valleys by adding proteins (25% to 35%) and lean fats (10% to 20%) to each meal. This formula will provide your body with five to six hours of steady energy it needs to keep you at high performance.

Elaine Chin, M.D., M.B.A., is a founder and Chief Medical Officer of Scienta Health, an executive health practice.