Skipping meals may increase belly fat, study finds

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Skipping meals may seem like a shortcut to losing weight, but a new study suggests it could backfire and actually increase belly fat.

For the study, published in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, researchers from The Ohio State University and Yale looked at the impact of different eating habits in mice. Some of the mice were allowed to nibble throughout the day, while others were put on a restricted diet where they were fed just once every 24 hours. The dieting mice tended to scarf down their daily allotment of food all at once -- the equivalent of fasting most of the day and then bingeing on a big meal.

"In this restricted group, everybody became what we call gorgers," Martha Belury, the senior author of the study and a professor of human nutrition at OSU, told CBS News. "Even though we took the mice off their diets after a few days, they would still gorge."

Those on the restricted eating plan initially lost weight, but gained it back when more calories were restored to their diets -- a pattern that many humans dieters will find all too familiar.

"We know that people go on and off diets pretty frequently, and we know that people who go off diets tend to gain weight," Belury said.

The mice that fasted and then gorged didn't just regain weight, however. They also developed insulin resistance in their livers. The researchers explained that when the liver doesn't respond to insulin signals telling it to stop producing glucose, that extra sugar in the blood ends up stored as adipose tissue, more commonly known as fat, in the body.

"Even though they were consuming the same amount of energy [calories], they were storing it differently -- storing it as adipose tissue," Belury said. The adipose tissue -- fat -- accumulated around the organs in the mice's midsections.

In humans, gaining fat around the abdomen has been linked to a range of serious health problems. "Heart disease, diabetes, metabolic syndrome -- all of those things are promoted by higher fat in your belly or trunk region," Belury said.

While this study did not test the effects of fasting and gorging on human health, the researchers say there's reason to believe we'd see similar results.

"This does support the notion that small meals throughout the day can be helpful for weight loss, though that may not be practical for many people," Belury said. Skipping meals to save calories "sets your body up for larger fluctuations in insulin and glucose and could be setting you up for more fat gain instead of fat loss."