At this point, most young people have had it hammered into them that they shouldn’t skip breakfast. Breakfast gives you fuel to start your day. Breakfast jumpstarts your metabolism. Breakfast keeps your energy levels up. That doesn’t mean that most young people listen to this advice, but it does mean that many of them understand the importance of the most important meal of the day.
But in our efforts to convince young people to eat breakfast, we’ve neglected another important meal: lunch. As an adolescent medicine specialist at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, I spend a lot of my day talking to young people who don’t understand why they’re feeling tired, have a headache, or are otherwise feeling “off.” Then I ask them what they’ve eaten. Too often, I find out that their first meal of the day is an after-school snack, or even dinner. Instead of three square meals a day, many teens and young adults are eating one.
Why Does It Matter If I Skip Lunch?
Your body is a machine that needs fuel to keep running, and depriving it of that fuel affects everything from your mood to your digestive tract. The brain’s biggest source of fuel is glucose, which your body gets when it breaks down food. If you’ve ever gotten “hangry,” then you know what happens when you deprive your brain of glucose. You get irritable, moody and sluggish, and it becomes difficult to concentrate. In addition, your brain has a much harder time storing new information and retrieving old information. For young people, that makes succeeding in school much more difficult.
Your brain isn’t the only part of your body fueled by glucose. Your muscles, thyroid, digestive tract and other organs use it too. If you’re hungry, you’ll feel low energy and have a hard time doing physical activities. Your body will begin to slow or even shut down activities that aren’t necessary, as a way to save energy. This means that your metabolism and digestion slow down. The next time you eat, your body will process your food slower. All of this means that skipping meals can too easily lead to weight gain.
How Can I Make Sure I Eat Lunch?
Eating lunch is a key part of staying healthy and happy, and doing well in school. So why do young people so often skip it? Many of my patients are busy, and feel that they don’t have time. Others find that lunch is too expensive, they don’t like the food served at school or packed by their caregivers, or they just don’t plan ahead.
Many of these problems can be fixed by planning your lunch ahead of time. If you know you’re going to be busy, prep your meals at the beginning of the week. If you’re in college, think about when you’ll eat lunch. Pack a few healthy snacks just in case (see some examples below). If you don’t like the lunches packed for you, come up with some alternatives so you look forward to what you eat. Plan a potluck day with friends, where you each bring in a different delicious and nutritious food to share.
Of course, not all barriers to eating lunch can be worked around so easily. Many students feel embarrassed that they receive free or reduced lunch, and skip lunch because they don’t want their classmates to find out. In response, many cities are choosing to eliminate the stigma by providing universal free lunch. This means that every student, no matter what, receives free lunch. If you don’t attend a school with universal free lunch, solving this problem is a bit more complicated than just planning better. Remember that in New York City, three-quarters of all students qualify for free or reduced lunch, so you’re definitely not alone. There’s nothing shameful about using a free lunch program, and real friends won’t judge you if you do. Ultimately, only you can decide if and how you want to eat lunch, but make sure you know all the benefits of eating a healthy lunch (and consequences of skipping lunch) when you make your decision.
But What Should I Eat?
Of course, what you eat for lunch matters. If your lunch includes a lot of fat and processed carbohydrates (like white bread or Pop-Tarts), you may feel sleepy after eating. To avoid this and get all the vitamins, minerals and fiber you need, make sure you include some vegetables, fruit, a protein (like chicken, beans, eggs or tuna), and some whole grains. Stick to healthier fats, like avocadoes or nuts.
Remember: You don’t need to eat traditional “lunch” foods, like sandwiches. You can make a great meal by getting creative with ingredients from your corner store or bodega. Consider taking leftovers. You can also be an advocate within your school for healthier and tastier lunches. Try talking to the administration about having a permanent salad bar in your cafeteria.
Here are some more quick tips for eating a healthier lunch:
- Substitute olive oil for mayonnaise, a whole-wheat wrap for white bread, and grilled food for fried food.
- Frozen fruits and vegetables are much cheaper than fresh ones, and usually just as healthy.
- Try making a Southwest-style wrap with guacamole, salsa, chicken or beans, and spinach and other veggies.
- Another healthy lunch option is a salad with lots of vegetables plus a healthy grain like brown rice, quinoa, buckwheat, or soba noodles, and a protein such as eggs, beans, or fish.
- Healthy snacks include vegetables with dip (like hummus or guacamole), nuts, string cheese, or high-quality granola bars (meaning they don’t have tons of sugar!).
- Carry a bottle of water with you, so you’re not tempted by the soda machine.
- If you buy your lunch at school, ask for a double helping of vegetables and a smaller helping of carbs.
- If you’re eating fast food, you can still choose healthier options, like a veggie pizza instead of the meat lover’s.
- For dessert, bring some strawberries dipped in Nutella or another chocolate spread!
Want some more healthy eating tips? Try here and here! If you have any questions about how to be your healthiest self and you’re 10-22 years old, stop by Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for a free, confidential visit with a health care provider.
Lonna Gordon, MD, PharmD is a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center who is fellowship trained in adolescent medicine. In addition to general adolescent care, Dr. Gordon sees obese adolescents who are interested in comprehensive medical and reproductive health care through a structured, multidisciplinary approach to weight loss.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.