Buddha Groove’s Guru Series brings insight from experts across the fields of mindfulness, natural wellness, yoga, and meditation. Below we have wisdom from licensed psychotherapist, Certified Meditation Instructor, Registered Yoga Teacher, and Ayurveda wellness coach, Dr. Patty Hlava.
We live in a world of distracted eating—eating breakfast as you walk out the door or while you drive, eating lunch at your desk while you work, and eating dinner while you watch TV.
With all of this distraction, we’re missing out on the opportunity to really taste—and enjoy—our food. This distraction not only takes away our opportunity to really savor our food, but it also affects how well we are able to digest it, how well the body can assimilate the nutrition, and how well we can tell when we’re actually full or satisfied!
It will come as no surprise that there are better, healthier ways to enjoy our food. Fortunately, Ayurveda—yoga’s sister science of lifestyle wisdom—offers some great guidelines that can help us get the most from our meals.
From the Ayurvedic view, there are 4 primary elements to keep in mind for optimal health and digestion when it comes to mealtime:
- How we eat
- How much we eat
- When we eat
- What we eat
Let’s take a look at each of these briefly.
How we eat:
How we eat actually has the greatest influence on the quality of our digestion. It’s also the thing that we tend to pay the least amount of attention to when we think about digestion, diet, or our health. Our culture of “eating on the go” and “grabbing a bite” places eating as a background task, running secondary to to-do lists, computer work, social media scrolling, or watching television.
The effects of distracted—or multi-tasked eating are harmful to our digestion. When we are not focusing on eating, our body is not able to digest our food properly, and this is significantly exacerbated when we are engaged in something stressful while we eat.
Consider how your body tenses up and your breath shortens when you see something scary on TV, or how your body clenches when you feel anger or frustration. These muscle contractions—this tensing occurs internally within the digestive system as well, limiting the amount of internal resources available to adequately break down the food and absorb the nutrients.
When the body can’t break down a food item properly, even the most nutrient-dense foods can become toxins, as undigested food clogs channels within the digestive tract.
There is an old Indian proverb that states, “If you eat while standing, death looks over your shoulder.” Grim? Perhaps. Yet, it speaks to the importance of how we are showing up when we eat.
When we sit down and allow a little time, space, and perhaps silence, we are significantly improving our digestion, our overall health, and even giving ourselves a chance to enjoy our food.
Practice: Try eating even the first few bites of your next meal in silence with no distractions. Eat slowly. Notice the colors, textures, smells, and flavors of your food. Chew your food slowly and really take in the taste. Notice how your body responds.
Your mind may protest and seek distraction—this is normal if you’re not used to silent eating. Be gentle with yourself and stick with this practice for a few days. Your body will thank you!
How much we eat:
How much we eat is also an important consideration. In Ayurveda, our digestion is related to the element of fire, and Ayurveda is very attuned to nurturing our digestive fire (called “agni” in Sanskrit). If we add too much wood to the fire, it can’t burn properly. If we eat too much food over a short period of time, our digestion becomes strained and we are likely to experience uncomfortable symptoms such as gas, bloating, nausea, or fatigue.
Ayurveda encourages the avoidance of snacking. Frequent snacking is like adding too much wood to the fire. The body requires time between meals to digest—4 hours on average for food to travel through the gross digestive process. Allow the body the time it needs to break down and digest each meal before adding more fuel to the digestive fire.
What about the quantity of food? Ayurveda recommends that we leave one-third of our stomach empty to allow space in the stomach for the food to digest. One way to estimate the ideal portion size for your body: cup your hands together, little fingertips touching, forming the shape of a bowl. Two “hand bowl” serving sizes of food is the equivalent of the appropriate serving size per meal. Of course, if you experience fullness before that, you can eat less.
Another way to assess when you are “done” eating at a meal is to stop at the first burp. The body naturally releases a little belch when the stomach is reaching fullness. This is like a little stop-sign offered by the digestive system saying, “We’re at capacity. No more for a few hours. Thanks!”
When we eat:
We don’t often give much thought into when we eat. It’s not uncommon to skip meals, snack liberally, and then eat larger meals at night. From an Ayurveda view, this is problematic, and again very challenging to our agni—that digestive fire.
Ayurveda offers a simple guideline for when to eat: eat the largest, most nutrient-dense and nourishing meal mid-day between 10:00am and 2:00pm.
Mid-day is when the sun is the highest in the sky. We are at our most active mentally, emotionally, and physically. Our agni is at its strongest and can break down more complicated proteins and heavier foods at this time of day, giving us mental and physical energy to move through the remainder of the day.
Breakfast can be a small meal, simple to digest and nourishing. Dinner can also be small and light—the body doesn’t need a lot of energy to prepare for sleep.
Allow at least two to three hours after your final meal of the day before going to sleep. This allows the body to focus on digesting the experiences of the day and detoxing while you sleep rather than trying to digest a large meal. Try this for a week and see how much more rested you feel when you wake in the morning!
What we eat:
We’ve talked about the how, the how much, and the when to eat. Now let’s look at the final element of optimal health and digestion: what we eat. What we eat makes a difference in how much energy we have, and our physical and emotional health as well.
My favorite teaching in regard to food is to “eat food made by someone who loves you.” It’s likely that a meal purchased from a drive-thru or a vending machine was not prepared with love for you in mind. A meal prepared by you—with your health and vibrancy in mind—well, that’s a different story!
A great general guideline for what to eat comes from Michael Pollen: “Eat food cooked by humans, not corporations.” Avoid processed or frozen foods. One of my teachers shared this Ayurveda categorization of foods:
- Smart Foods: These are fresh foods. They are made of live cells, that when entering the human body—also made of live cells—can communicate on a cellular level with the body and be easily assimilated. These foods are easily recognized: they are aromatic, they are colorful and vibrant; you can actually see the life force in them when you look at them. Consider a fresh soup made by your grandmother, or freshly steamed vegetables.
- Dead Foods: These foods have been around a while. They have been frozen and reheated, and perhaps refrigerated and reheated again after that. They have some lifeforce, but you can see when you look at the food—there is a dullness. They are not vibrant externally, and they won’t add much vibrancy to how you feel internally.
- Dumb Foods: These foods are not found in the natural world. Consider a Cheeto, a candy bar, or a fast food chicken nugget with a list of ingredients that cannot be pronounced without a background in chemical engineering. Since these have chemicals do not contain living cells, they can’t community with the cells in our body. Our body doesn’t quite know what to do with them, and they offer no nutritive support or vitality.
Ayurveda encourages us to aim for a diet that is primarily plant-based, with natural grains and proteins. Cooked food is easier to digest than raw foods, and foods prepared with herbs and spices can also support our agni.
Eating fresh foods that are prepared to balance the elements of the seasons is also a valuable consideration. For example, the coldness of winter is naturally invites warming foods like soups, while the heat of summer naturally lends itself toward more cooling foods like salads.
Putting it all together:
Ayurveda offers wonderful strategies for optimizing our health through nurturing our digestion. Paying attention to how, how much, when, and what we eat can ensure that we are getting the most of our meals—both in terms of nutrition, but also in experience.
- Pay attention to your food—avoid distractions
- Allow time between meals to digest the previous food
- Eat your biggest meal mid-day, and keep dinner earlier and lighter
- Eat with the seasons and as Michael Pollen suggests: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
That being said—don’t expect yourself to do all of this perfectly all of the time. Ayurveda is not about rigidity or perfection. Aim for a “B-”, not an “A+”.
Be gentle with yourself and experiment with these guidelines: try one thing, see how you feel, and build gradually from there. Most of all—have fun, invite yourself to slow down, and savor some food!