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  • Writer's pictureHeather Johnson

When to Eat for Proper Digestion

Updated: Jun 28, 2021

When you eat your meals and snacks has a huge impact on your digestion. And in Ayurveda we know that digestion is vital to creating healthy tissues and keep the body and mind clear of ama and toxins.

This is Heather Johnson and you're listening to the Ayurveda Life School Podcast, episode number 97, When to Eat for Proper Digestion.

Hello, my friends. Welcome to this beautiful snowy Monday morning. I hope you're having a beautiful day and that life is starting to maybe get some semblance of normalcy. I've seen so many businesses that are opening up again, and things are kind of feeling a little bit more normal. And I believe that the more we can send some really good positive energy into the space that we're in, into the world, the more we'll be able to slowly come back to a state of new normal that is beautiful. And that works for all of us.

And as I've been thinking about what we consider to be normal, I always come back to that conversation of digestion. Now you might feel like, Oh my goodness. She talks about how our food should be digested all the time.

Why does she kind of beat this into our heads? And why is this so important?

We know that from an Ayurvedic standpoint, how your food digests is directly tied to your health which is directly tied to pulling the benefits from the food into your body. And it's not just what you're eating.


The first thing people want to know when they want to start living Ayurvedically is, well, what should I be eating?

What they really should be asking themselves is when should I be eating and how should I be eating? One of the exercises that I take my immersion group through each month is a breakfast oatmeal adventure. We all eat breakfast at the same time each day. We do the same recipe. It's an oatmeal based recipe and we let everyone experience what it is like to have that routine in their lives.


And I've been very surprised as I've worked with people, how many people don't eat anything in the morning, and there's sometimes waiting until one or two in the afternoon to actually have that first meal. And that's a challenge for them to start eating breakfast. I have really fast digestion. And so if I don't eat breakfast, I'm feeling it and I can ignore those body's signals, but I don't feel great if I do it.

But what's also interesting, as people are starting to eat that breakfast meal, they're noticing their hunger signals are shifting and they might be feeling hungry earlier in the day.

And that was concerning for one of our members who said, “But I'm not normally hungry for lunch. And now I feel like I'm eating more because I'm having breakfast now. I'm really hungry by the time lunchtime comes around and I'm still having dinner. So I'm actually eating more food.”

She felt that that was a problem. That is actually a beautiful thing. I was really excited for her to see that her digestive fires had been reignited, that all the dampening she'd done over time of not feeding the body when it needed, it was starting to be healed in a really short amount of time. Within about a week.


She was noticing this change because if you're eating nutrient dense or nutrient rich foods throughout the day, you might be saying, okay, great, I'm doing it right. But if you're eating them at the wrong times, your body can't actually digest or take in the nutrients. So it's not helping you. You're actually creating toxicity in your body. You have to take in the food at the proper time.

And so it actually starts with the day before, if you want to feel amazing today, what you did yesterday, particularly in the evening, is what allows you to wake up with a vibrancy and to have energy and to feel really good today.


So we want to start looking at that snowball effect. It's important that we understand there's a cause and effect that happens from our actions. So what are we doing that's causing this effect?

And if we're not getting the results that we want, there's something that needs to shift. We need to shift and change how we're eating our food when we're eating our food. And then if that doesn't solve our problems, then we can look at what we're eating. Now, if you're eating ice cream and pizza and donuts all day, you probably already know that there needs to be some adjustments to the food that you're taking in. But if you're eating a pretty balanced diet, you feel like you're really working towards health. Let's hone in on the when and the how.


I have talked in the past about the Ayurvedic clock and how our body's natural fire or Pitta energy rises and falls at different times of the day.

Pitta is vital for digestion. That's what metabolizes and breaks down our food. And so when we're having a meal at lunchtime, and that's our biggest meal of the day, that is the best time for our bodies to digest food. It has all the proper enzymes. It has all the proper stomach acids and secretions that have been let out. And that's the height of Pitta energy in the environment, as well as within us. That is when we should take in the most amount of food. This tradition of having a big dinner and a late lunch is not helping us. And it can be culturally hard to shift. Some people go out to dinner with colleagues, and that's hard for them because they're used to doing these evening meals. Dinnertime is often looked at as a time to gather the family together, right, and connect and talk about your day.

And what's great is that you don't have to take away from that experience. You just can eat lighter at those meals and still have that beautiful experience.


You'll notice as you begin to shift this, that you'll have a lot better sleep, that you'll have more energy. When you wake in the morning, your bowels will be regulated. So just doing that one thing about having your largest meal at lunchtime, and then having that smaller, earlier light dinner, we often think we are doing this. And then we actually start to track what we're eating and we realize, Oh, I'm actually kind of eating more than I thought or I'm snacking late into the evening. So it can be really useful if you take a week and before changing anything with your routines, keep track of it.

Look at when am I eating and how am I eating my food? Was I walking around? Was I driving somewhere? Was I sitting. Was I visiting? Was I reading something on my phone? Was I looking at the computer and doing emails? So look at the how and the when and what you're eating and keep track of that for a week. Then we can start making some shifts.


The first one to focus on would be making sure that lunchtime is sacred. I work a couple of days a week at a spa doing massage because I like to be able to serve in that way. I think it's really nice. And when I first started working there, I didn't block off my lunch break. I'm a contract employee there. And so I have a little more flexibility with my schedule, but I also didn't want to take away from my employer and what they were trying to accomplish with me being there.

So I wanted to give them my best effort while I was there. But I found that by working from 10 until three and not having lunch, I was really destructively hurting my agni. My digestive fire was being affected. So I started blocking off lunch. So every day from 1230 to one, I have a lunch break. Anytime I'm working at that office.

And it has changed my experience while I'm there, the people in the afternoon get a much better massage than they were getting before when I was skipping lunch and I have more energy, I'm more excited and happy to be there. And I feel better because then I'm ready for my light early dinner. So making that a commitment can be really challenging. Getting your boss involved or your coworkers involved in creating more of a culture around having lunch can be really helpful.

Getting your family involved. If you work at home, if you're with your family, having that be a time that you gather again to talk and be together at lunchtime. So you really have to make that a commitment, that's really important.


Let's look at how agni works in relation to the rest of the body. There is a direct relationship between Agni and Pitta. Dosha has both fire and water elements, but it is mostly fire. It's the heat in the body. And that's what burns and digests the food that's taken in. The water aspect contains the fire so that it doesn't burn too strongly, kind of tempers it a little bit. Pitta constitution or Pitta dosha tends to have the strongest digestion and they tend to do well in the digestive area. And there's many different types of agni in the body.

I talked a little bit about this in a Q and a podcast that was episode number 90, that you can go back and listen to a little bit, but the main digestive fire in the body is Jathragni. It’s function is to digest food, destroy pathogens in the food and control the body temperature. Jathragni is located in the stomach.

There's healthy digestion that occurs from this. And what happens when it's healthy is that it's able to transform everything that you take in into a useful material that can create tissue, can heal wounds, and create growth.

When it's unhealthy, it leaves behind ama. And so it doesn't process everything fully. So we need that ability to transform or metabolize what's brought in into useful material, because that's how the body's going to grow and develop.


I’ll give a little example here. And I think I've mentioned this analogy before, when you go camping, you have to get everything all set up, right?

You get your tent set up. You might have a nice little hike. You get ready to build your campfire and tell your stories in the evening. So you gather all of the things to make your fire. And first you need a really good fuel source, some good wood, but it can't just be any wood. You want it to be dry and it needs to be hard so that it can hold a flame, a soft Greenwood just won't burn. It has to be a little bit older and a little bit harder. And you're likely going to chop some small pieces off to make some kindling.

And then you're building your fire. You don't want to start out with too much wood or it won't burn. It will just create a lot of smoke. If you want the fire to stay strong for a long time, you have to have plenty of wood available to keep feeding the fire and keep the flames burning at a nice, even steady roar.

Next, you have to have a spark to start the fire. Once this work has started, you have a small little flame. You may blow a little air on the fire to allow it to catch and spread to the other wood. And this is important because if you have too much air blowing on the fire, it will go out and then you have to start all over again.

So this relates really directly to our digestion. And this is an analogy that I learned when I was at the California College of Ayurveda and Dr. Mark Halpern, who's the director shared this analogy. So I think it's really useful.

The wood in your campfire is the food that you eat, the quality of the food, as well as the quantity, how much food is really important when you're creating a healthy, strong fire. If you have low quality food, processed food, junk food it's not going to burn clean. And if you eat too little, or if you eat randomly, the fire is going to die out.

But if you eat too much, or if you eat foods that are really heavy and moist then the fire drowns out and burns very little, right, it's kind of a smokey fire. You have to find that sweet spot where you have just the right amount of high quality food to get a good moderate burn, because even high quality food given in excess will cause the fire to smolder and go out. That's an important thing to remember because we often think, well, I'm eating healthy foods, so why am I heavy? If I have too much body weight, but I'm eating healthy food, what's going on? It could be that you are eating too much. And it's burning out that digestive fire.

It's actually smothering that fire. The air is the movement. So the air in the fire, when we blow on the fire to create that burn, the air is the movement through your body caused by Vata dosha. You need a little bit of that movement. You need just enough air to keep the fire burning strong. But if you have too much air or too much vata, then you end up with irregular digestion, which leads to gas, bloating, and constipation.

So if you're experiencing gas, bloating, and constipation, it's because there's too much air blowing on your fire. There's an instability with the fire that's happening in there.

So this brings us back to how we're eating and when we're eating, just wanted you to have that kind of analogy of the campfire in your mind. So if you are eating at the proper times when your digestive fire is the highest, and you're doing that consistently, your body starts to know what to expect, and it will produce the right enzymes, the right ability to burn, and you match it with the dosha time of day.

So we want to have, again, that big meal at lunch with a smaller, lighter dinner.


Now we haven't talked about breakfast too much. Let's kind of get to breakfast here. When you have breakfast in the morning, like we're doing with that oatmeal challenge inside my immersion program. When we have our breakfast in the morning, we don't want it to be really heavy. We also need it to be substantial enough that our body is able to move with good energy until lunchtime, right? Everything kind of hinges on this lunchtime.

So we want breakfast to get the digestion going, kind of get more metabolism moving in order to then keep us really happy and peaceful all the way up until lunchtime.


One of my teachers who I really admire is a woman named Cate Stillman. And she wrote a book called Body Thrive, which is all about Ayurvedic habits.

She said, “When Agni is strong and balanced, you feel satiated and relaxed after eating and vibrant with long stretches between meals.”

Between the last meal of the day and the breaking of the fast, the next day, we want to have that contentment, that good feeling through our body, that sustainable energy, where our body is able to continue to convert what's excess into fuel.

If you're feeding your body erratically or you're feeding yourself very inconsistently. You might eat at two o'clock on one day. The next day you might eat at 11:00 AM. You might have a late meal one night. Then you might have an early dinner one night. Your body has no idea what's coming or going. It gets very confusing.

But when we align our digestion and our eating patterns with our agni, then you're going to find that your digestion and your energy is smooth and easy.

It takes care of all that bloating, the gas, the constipation. So when someone wants to know, well, what food am I eating that's causing this problem. There could be an allergy involved. That's something we always would look at, but it could be more that there's irregularity to the eating, that there's an inconsistent pattern that they're not eating at the same time.

And I think it's always really glaring when you do that food journal, like I talked about. So doing that food journal helps you to see the irregularities in your schedule. So you can tighten that up just a little bit. It helps you to see when you're snacking and it might be for emotional reasons, or it might be for distraction or boredom. And it's not truly because you need the food.


Remember our fire of digestion is different based upon our dosha. So our Vatas do tend to need to have some of those extra smaller meals in there.

So four to five meals can be very good for a Vata, but you still do it regularly, which doesn't give you carte blanche to just have a snack whenever you want. It's more, I'm going to have a consistent afternoon snack because that way my body knows what to expect.


And for our pittas, we know three meals a day are good. If you keep them nutrient dense and eat them at the right time according to the Ayurveda clock they will feel the very best.


For a Kapha they maybe can get away with two meals a day. If their digestive fire is really sluggish and slow, they don't want to overload. It. They'll actually do better if they have breakfast and lunch and then omit that evening dinner and maybe have a broth or a tea, simply because our digestion starts to slow down in the evening. So we definitely don't want to overload it on someone who is kapha and already has sluggish digestion. That's just like making the whole problem worse for them.


Still remember that hunger is not something to be afraid of. Our body was designed for the stomach to have food in it, to expand and then to empty and then to expand and then to empty. And the healing in our body happens during that empty space. So when you feel hungry, sometimes I want you to just start to notice what is going on exactly in your body. Ask yourself, What am I feeling? What are the sensations?

And we don't want to be so stuffed that we're not allowing our bodies to rest in that digestive cycle. Digestion is like that long exhale part of the cycle when your stomach is empty. So your body is basically fasting from dinner until breakfast, which is so good. About 12 to 13 hours would be excellent to go without food at that point, because if you're having dinner by six, and if you're having breakfast between about 7:30 and lunch around 12 to 1230, then you're giving yourself a lot of space in there.

So I recommend you start to look at your schedule. How can you create that structure? So you're having your breakfast between eight and eight 30, and you're having lunch between 12 and 1230, and you're having dinner between six and six 30, that will give you a lot of time in there so that we're able to move things around.


And if you eat a big dinner and then you lay down immediately, your body can't digest as well because good digestion needs us to have some gravity assisting us. When you're laying down, you feel terrible because you're on the wrong axis and all that food is trying to digest. You won't be able to breathe deep and easy. So you tend to wake up throughout the night. And I know this is something that all of us have had experiences with.

We're at a gathering. We eat too late. We eat too much, too rich. And then we find ourselves waking up around midnight or 1:00 AM and just feeling ill because that food is just sitting there in that digestive space. So we're decreasing the amount of movement of prana, of energy in our body when we do that. And then it's no surprise that we wake up the next day, totally tired, fatigued, and it starts this nasty cycle.

So choose what you can shift in your schedule right now. How can you adjust when you're eating in order to get the best benefits from it? One other note about breakfast. If you can get your exercise and movement in before you eat breakfast, that will help your metabolism and your digestion. Many people like to do these 9:00 AM yoga classes. And so they'll eat breakfast kind of early, get their kids off or whatever they're doing for the day.

And then they go to yoga. If you can start to shift that and do your movement before you have breakfast, not only will you feel more energized during your practice, you will also work towards burning off that food more efficiently. So it's a simple shift to make. You can do the same yoga practice with the same exercise you've been doing. Just flip flop that. So you're doing it before you have your breakfast.

So those are some ways that we can really simply start to work on agni, right? Taking that week to analyze and see where you're at, start adjusting your meal times, making sure that you're eating at the proper times, switching your morning routine to make sure your exercise is happening first. Having that breakfast and looking for that nice long space that you're giving your digestive system between dinner and breakfast. That can be a really challenging habit if you're used to eating late into the evening or snacking before bed.

Observe, how does your body respond to this and then make adjustments from your dosha like I mentioned.

These are ways that we can immediately start working on our agni and we can start finding some of that beautiful energy that we're seeking.


This is another reason why we do seasonal cleanses, because it helps us to reset our patterns and get back into our rhythms and strategies for being healthy and feeling good and living and eating to the season. So we will have a seasonal cleanse through the Ayurveda life school. So keep an eye out for that. And we'd love to have you join us for it. It is a way to just get yourself back on track. If you have found that over the winter time, it's been harder to regulate when you're eating and you've gotten a little more munchy or you're working at home and foods available to you, which I tell you has always been a hard thing.

Then a seasonal cleanse is the perfect time to release some of that dryness and move into spring without having the seasonal allergies that normally come up. We'll be able to curb those before they even happen. And if you've held onto some excess over the winter, which is totally fine and natural, our bodies do that on purpose to protect us from the cold of the winter. But aseasonal cleanse is a good way to let go of some of that. So watch for more information about that.

Have a beautiful week. Just have fun working on your schedule because we have a lot more control over it than we think. We take some of our power back. Be empowered to share how Ayurveda can help yourself and others by being an example of living it.

We'll see you soon. Have a beautiful week.


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