If I could only adopt one food-related life-changing habit, I would chose this one. This habit can help improve digestion, get more energy, and lose weight – slowly but inevitably.
It is not eating before the previous meal has been digested. This rule is very simple yet very effective. It comes from Āyurveda – the Indian holistic medical system that has been used for more than 5000 years.
What most health & wellness blogs won’t tell you
If you are looking for ways to improve your health and wellbeing, the chances are you will come accross many sources that will tell you exactly what to do. They will list foods that are considered healthy and those which are not, some of them will tell you how you should plan your meals and your snacks, how much water you should drink, what supplements to take and so on. However, it is rearly mentioned when and how healthy foods should be consumed, who they are good for and who should avoid some of them. Most nutritional advice that you find on the Internet seems to focus on people who have perfect digestion. It may seem that the only thing people need is changing the list of foods they are putting in their mouth and voilá, the results will be there!
Do you actually know how good your digestion is?
If you have really good digestion, you will most likely digest any food and won’t even bother to change anything in your food patterns and lifestyle. On the contrary, if you have poor or declining digestion (as people naturally do as they age and when they are chronically ill or stressed), you will likely not be able to digest even super healthy foods that you will be consuming! Āyurvedic medicine starts from digestion because digestion is the root of everything that happens in our bodies and minds. I will say more about this approach in this blog but for now let’s come back to our “number one” rule to improve digestion: not eating before your previous meal is digested in the stomach and has left it. This can take anything between 1-6 hours depending on your digestion strength, how hungry you were when you took your meal, what food in which combination you consumed etc.
Why is this rule so important for good digestion?
Snacking or having frequent meals leads to the situation where you still have some food from a previous meal in your stomach at the moment when you decide to have your next mouthful of something. The digestion process will have to start all over again. This will usually result in incompletely digested products that are neither good for building tissues, nor ready for excretion. These products are called Āma* in Ayurveda which is often incorrectly translated as ‘toxins’. They circulate in the body interfering with normal processes in tissues and organs and ultimately lead to disease. Just think about it for a moment: already 5000 years ago people have known how such basic things as digestion work! Why don’t we use this knowledge?
No “woo-woo” here, just science
This recent research paper (see the link below) basically shows that having appropriate intervals between meals is as efficient as using anorectic drugs in reducing obesity and metabolic syndrome. Who could have thought this!? You can read this paper for free, it is an open access paper. It is pretty cumbersome though, and one could hardly guess from the title what practical outcomes it may contain, but here is the link if you want to read it yourself.
How long should that optimal intermeal interval be?
It will totally depend on several factors, such as:
- your digestion on that day (yes, it can vary),
- time of the day (digestion will normally be stronger in the first half of the day),
- season (think about eating a big hot meal if it is +35ºC outside),
- type of food (a small piece of pineapple will leave your stomach very quickly, a large steak will stay there for a while).
How do I know when I can eat my next meal?
Many people experience it as heaviness in their stomach if they have eaten too early after the previous meal. Some will mention heartburn and acid reflux, some – bloating soon after eating. Whatever it is, you can find out by observing yourself and learning to see the connections. For example, you can keep a journal and take short notes like: “I ate food X at this time of the day, I felt good/bad several hours later” or “I ate food Y in the evening, had a nice/poor night’s sleep and woke up refreshed/grumpy”. But that’s so much work, you may say. Yes, and nobody can do it for you, unfortunately. In the end, there is no magic doctor or magic pill that will sort things out for you.
It’s fine if you are not ready to change anything just yet. It takes time to prepare, gather information and inspiration to change something in life. But once you get really tired of feeling unwell, you can get back control over your life. As my friend Leigh Eastman has put it:
Taking responsibility for your own health and wellbeing is, I believe, the key to a long happy and healthy life.
* If you are in need of a biochemical analogy here, you can think of Āma as different biomarkers and risk factors, antibodies that are produced in allergies or other autoimmune conditions, and similar molecules that “should not be there normally”.