It’s been said that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Does this mean that lunch is the second most important? Or perhaps, if you’re on a diet, is lunch even necessary? Let’s figure it out.
The first thing you need to consider when determining the value of lunch is to take a look at what you had for breakfast, if anything. According to a report by the Department of Agriculture, more than 13 million children under the age of 18 do not have enough food to eat, a condition they call “food insecurity.” The report goes on to say that food insecurity can impair a child’s performance in school, increase their risk of illness and hospitalization, cause them to be more likely to be suspended and quit school, and make them more susceptible to obesity. For this group, free or reduced-price school lunches could certainly be considered their most important meal of the day.
Beyond food insecurity, there is evidence that those who frequently skip lunch may have more difficulty losing weight than those who don’t. For example, a study was published in Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that looked at the eating habits of 123 women, ages 50-75, over a 12-month period. Those who frequently skipped meals lost approximately 8 fewer pounds than women who kept regular eating habits. One possible reason for this difference is that if you skip lunch, you may overeat later. This is good to know, but there are other benefits of eating lunch other than weight control.
If you ate breakfast especially early, or skipped it altogether, your blood sugar drops and you can feel sluggish at lunchtime. Those who market caffeine-packed “energy shots,” so-called energy sodas that rot your teeth (but are great for removing corrosion from car batteries!), and even some popular chocolate candy bars have focused their advertising on how their products are the solution to the mid-morning and early-afternoon blahs. By the way, the hands-down winner of energy shots is 5 Hour Energy, which reported sales of 965.8 million dollars in a single year!
While it’s admirable to eat a snack and work through lunch to get more done, research suggests otherwise. A study in the journal Cognition found that you lose focus staying at a task for too long, but that a diversion (such as a lunch away from the workplace) can help you regain focus. Scientifically speaking, the researchers found that “heightened levels of vigilance can be maintained over prolonged periods of time with the use of brief, relatively rare and actively controlled disengagements from the vigilance task.”
One problem with eating out is that often only an hour is allowed for lunch. When you take into consideration traveling time and the time a restaurant needs to prepare your meal, the choices become extremely narrow. One popular solution is fast food.
The National Center for Health Statistics found that between 2013 and 2106, approximately one third (36.6%) of adults eat at fast food restaurants each day. Specifically, 44.9 percent of adults ages 20-39, 37.7% ages 40-59, and 24.1% aged 60 and over. Men were most likely to consume fast food at lunch, whereas women were more likely to consume fast food as a snack. By the way, according to 2013 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Americans consume 11.3% of their total calorie intake from fast food (although the survey period was between 2007-2010, so the current numbers may be significantly higher).
What these numbers suggest is that one way to significantly improve your diet would be to find better restaurants to eat at and determine which items on the menu are the healthiest (or, at least, cause less damage).
Nutritionist Keith Klein coined the expression, “Better Bad Choices.” Klein recognized that we are often faced with conditions in which we cannot make the best food choices, such as when we forced to eat at a fast food restaurant (and especially airport food courts!). Rather than skipping a meal, Klein says to find out in advance the contents of foods at nearby fast food restaurants and avoid the worst foods so you can make a “better bad choice.” In addition to Klein’s books on nutrition, one practical resource for making better food choices are the “Eat This, Not That!” books, which include one called the “Restaurant Survival Guide.”
Whether you eat lunch at a restaurant, pick up some ready-to-eat foods at a supermarket, or pack your own lunch, avoid foods that are high in simple carbs, such as white bread. These foods will cause a high insulin spike that will quickly result in a dramatic drop in blood sugar that can make you sluggish and sleepy -- think kids at a birthday party and cake! Focus instead on consuming high quality protein, green vegetables, and healthy fats. Also, eat enough to deal with your hunger, but don’t overeat, and try taking a short walk after lunch can help manage your blood sugar.
Finally, keep a diary of how the foods you eat at lunch affect you later in the day – if a food makes you drowsy, don’t eat it. In fact, just keeping a food journal may help you lose weight. In the JAND study, the women who kept food journals lost an average of six pounds more than those who did not.
With a bit of careful planning, you can avoid eating lunches that can adversely affect your health and energy levels. Such an action plan can be a considerable challenge at first, but the benefits are worth it.