Digestion: Why Timing Matters

The whole world practically revolves around food. No matter what culture or country you are from, there are countless different traditions and holidays where people value the community coming together over a meal. And if we eat, our bodies have to digest what we consume! This process of digestion, when working properly, should go practically unnoticed and be completely painless. However, in the United States, most of us actually experience a wide range and severity of digestive issues. Each year, something like 55-65 million people are diagnosed with some sort of digestive issue. Digestion is a process of the body breaking down food into their most basic nutrients, in forms that are easily absorbed and assimilated by the body. What most people don’t realize about digestion is that it is the single most energy draining process in the body.

Digestion actually takes up a whopping 40-60% (depending on what you eat) of our body’s energy just to breakdown our meals each day. When we stress out our system with not only poor food choices, but with improper timing of consumption, this can wreak havoc on our entire digestive system. When the body is struggling to digest food it wasn’t meant to, during times that it’s not designed to, it diverts energy away from other bodily processes, and into digestion. This causes a drainage of energy (lethargy) as well as slowing other important healing processes down, in favor for focusing on the food in the stomach. The reason why digestion takes such a huge part of our body’s energy is because of the large organs being utilized, and the thousands of constant processes that play into every step of digestion. There is another important reason why your body will quickly prioritize digestion and immediately begin to divert all the energy it needs to do so. This is because the longer food sits in the stomach or intestines (without being broken down) the more quickly this food will either ferment, rot, or purify and thus cause severe toxicity in the body. So the body must quickly attend to the food that is in the stomach, or risk poisoning itself!

With that being said, there are ways to lighten the load of digestion for our body. One way people do this is by focusing on what they eat. This is the most common approach to improving digestion, as what we eat is incredibly important. However, many people overlook another important aspect to improving digestion, and that is in the timing of when we eat. For an example, let’s look at the very first meal of the day. Breakfast is commonly touted as “the most important meal of the day”. However, people tend to overlook the most important component of breakfast, and it’s in the name: it is a meal designed to break the “fast” of the last 8-12 hours. Our culture has pressured people into consuming a huge breakfast within 30 minutes of waking up as a unproven “boost” to one’s metabolism. It’s a bit silly to think that the most energy draining process in the body would be able to then, provide a boost of energy from a huge meal in the morning. While digestion does consume energy (calories) this doesn’t mean your body is ready to receive such a large meal after waking, especially if you are not experiencing any hunger. As a regular routine, it is absolutely healthy for the body to experience water only first thing in the morning, and eating a big, balanced meal within 1-2 hours of waking up.

Let’s now look at snacking. You may have heard that eating smaller meals more frequently “boosts the metabolism” and can lead to weight-loss. Again, this is an unproven claim, one that is founded on the misunderstanding of the digestive process. If the digestive process takes up half the body’s energy, it is counterproductive to consistently load the digestive system without giving it a break throughout the day. Doctors say it takes an average of 3 hours to get food moving from the stomach to the small intestine. Eating small meals or snacks less than 3 hours apart is adding more food to the stomach that the body has yet to fully empty from the last meal! Going 3-4 hours between meals is not unhealthy in the slightest. In fact, people who practice separating their meal times by even 4 hours or more, can typically experience better digestion. Not only can one experience better digestion when you spread out your meal times, you’re giving your body a chance to burn a little extra fat between meals. “Boosting metabolism” is unfortunately equated with “boosting energy” and that is just not the case. “Boosting one’s metabolism” is an energy draining process, not an energy enhancing one. Now, that’s not to say if you are starving, that you should intentionally starve yourself just to get through that timing window. That’s where healthy snacking comes in. A healthy snack strategically timed between meals, or right after a workout, is ideal to keep from crashing or feeling “starved” before your next meal-time.

Finally, let’s look at dinner and night-time eating. Most dieticians and professionals agree that most Americans have a problem with not only overeating at meal times, but eating over too long a period throughout the day. This is exacerbated by having only a small breakfast, a small lunch, and then arriving to dinner time with a raging appetite that is not satiated at the end of the meal. We end up with late night snacking and inevitably go to bed with a full stomach. Of course, the body cannot experience a deep, restful nights’ sleep when it has a belly full of food to digest! Professionals suggest that dinner should be a relatively lighter meal, and eaten earlier in the evening – with a possible low calorie snack 30-60 minutes before bed if you are really hungry. Night-time seems to be the hardest time to control eating habits, and professionals emphasize that eating bigger breakfasts and lunches during the day help to avoid overeating at night. Eating too much too close to bedtime interferes with sleep, causing things like acid reflux, upset stomach, and heartburn just to name a few!

Not only does what you eat matter, but when you eat plays a huge role in digestive health. Normalizing these habits in our lives will produce health for the long run, as we exercise self-discipline to allow our vibrant, glowing selves to shine!

https://www.verywellhealth.com/eating-before-bed-3014981 https://www.shawacademy.com/blog/5-meal-timing-myths-you-need-to-know/ https://www.health.com/nutrition/meal-timing-when-to-eat ​https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190304-how-meal-timings-affect-your-waistline https://wrcameronwellness.org/blog/the-best-time-to-eat-your-meals/