This started out as a post about the evils of meal-skipping, but I found myself writing about how we fool ourselves into less-than-ideal choices when in a food-deprived state. So I’ll use skipping meals as a vehicle for exploring a couple of these concepts.

Take this scenario: You have no time for breakfast and rush in to work with a cup of coffee. Around 11am you poke your nose into the conference room and see the leftover Krispy Kreme doughnuts from someone’s morning meeting. You snag a couple, noting that you didn’t have breakfast and won’t have time for lunch.

Work is stressful. Answering phone calls, replying to emails, writing reports. Barely time to go to the bathroom. You work late, alternating between coffee and soft drinks to keep you going. By 8pm  you’re starving, irritable and ready to bite someone’s head off. The last thing you can imagine — or have patience for — is cooking.

Instead of heading home, you swing by Outback Steakhouse, drawn in by the thought of a juicy burger. You order their bacon cheeseburger, but because you want to be “good”, you get the house salad with oil & vinegar as a side, instead of succumbing to the temptation of their Aussie fries. Top that off with a drink.

Here’s the ugly part: In two sittings, you’ve already consumed over 2000 calories just like that (surprise, the house salad does you no favors). It may seem unfair but the food industry works hard to make eating easy.

Two of the things that are influencing your actions:

1) Justification. You justify your food choices by figuring that because you’ve had fewer meals, you’ve “saved up” calories that can now be spent on crappy food. It doesn’t work that way. The food that you’re most likely to reach for when you’re starved has been engineered to be easily consumable for the sake of convenience, because we’re so bloody impatient. That means you’ll have eaten a lot more of it before your stomach signals to your brain that it’s full. Never a good thing.

Note: If you feel the need to use phrases like “I know this isn’t the healthiest, but…” and “I’m being bad, but…” then you are desperately searching for a justification for your choices. You know what you’re doing is unhealthy, but you’re doing it anyway. Do that enough, and you’ll be waking up wondering where those extra 40 pounds came from.

2) Perception. Maybe you think that the only things you ate all day were two doughnuts, a cheeseburger and a salad. Sounds rather innocuous when you put it that way. Also sounds like you’d come up calorie-deficient. The problem is that people are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to recalling how much they’ve eaten. Reality bites: those doughnuts range between 200-400 calories each and the burger and salad amount to just under an insane 1500 cals — “No rules, just wrong”! That doesn’t include the caloric cost of any drinks consumed along the way. And you refused the bread basket, right?

Note: Many people don’t really know what a healthy meal looks like. Meat & potatoes? A salad with light dressing? Our beliefs regarding proper food choices are based on many things, but least frequently science. Quite confusing and frustrating for someone who thinks they’re doing the right thing (skipping meals, perhaps) because it seems so logical, but ends up counterproductive.

The take-home message here is that when you stress your body by not feeding it regularly, you leave yourself vulnerable to slip-ups that may seem justified and innocent but do a disservice to you and your goals. The trick is to plan for times when you can’t stop for a full meal by making sure you have something available to pop in your mouth. Otherwise you’ll be at the mercy of your irrational appetite as your goals fade to a faint speck on the horizon.