How To Time Your Meals For Digestion, According To Experts
Meal timings can be tricky: how can you squeeze in nutritious, satisfying meals when you're run off your feet, have to eat at your desk, or barely have time for breakfast? However, there's also an added feature of your daily eating schedule that should be considered: your digestion. Picking the right times to eat can help your digestive system reach its full potential — and reduce issues like bloating, gas and sleep disturbances, which can result from eating at inopportune moments.
As with anything related to nutrition, the most effective meal time isn't going to be the same for everyone. "Everyone is different," nutritionist and dietician Jo Travers, RD, tells Bustle. "Some people have extremely quick digestion and others are a bit slower; really the best thing to do is to experiment and see what suits you best." That means noticing how your body reacts: if you eat late at night, are you able to sleep well? If you eat a heavy morning meal and then pick at smaller plates later, do you feel full and energized?
"The key is to listen to your body, eat the foods provide a balance and find a structure that works for you," dietician Priya Tew tells Bustle. With that in mind, here are some of the best expert tips on when to eat to make sure your gut is flourishing.
1. Try Eating Earlier In The Day
Every body is different, but for most of us, our circadian rhythms are set up to be actively metabolizing nutrients throughout the day, and resting during the night. That's why eating later in the day or before bed is often associated with discomfort or interrupted sleep.
"The body is not meant to be digesting food all day. In fact, our digestive organs run optimally during the day and slows considerably at night," nutritionist Sara Kahn tells Bustle. "This is why we may see acid reflux, indigestion and poor sleep with late night meals [and] snacks."
"Eating earlier in the day can give your body more time to digest food before you go to bed," Tew tells Bustle. "However, there are no hard and fast rules around this." If you're just not hungry until later in the day, this might not be the right schedule for you.
2. Eat Soon After You Wake Up
Feeding your hunger as soon as you wake up can help kickstart the process of eating earlier, as well as letting your circadian rhythm know that it's time to start the day.
"Eating breakfast should be a priority, as the body has had time overnight to rest and digest and is prepped to break the fast, Stephanie Papadakis, a holistic nutrition consultant at Gut of Integrity, tells Bustle. She notes that eating 30 to 60 minutes after you wake up can help to stabilize your blood sugar.
3. Have Larger Meals Early & A Small Dinner
Having a heavy dinner actually isn't necessarily the best approach for premium gut health, says Kahn, as it gives your digestive system too much to do overnight when it should be healing itself. "Eat your larger meals earlier in the day and have a smaller dinner at night at least three hours before bedtime," she advises. "This gives your digestive system a chance to work more efficiently while leaving plenty of time for repair and rejuvenation that only happens while you sleep."
It also banishes gurgling and discomfort from digestion while you're trying to drift off to dreamland; Papadakis tells Bustle that generally digestion finishes within those three hours, so the body can direct its energy to repairing your body while you sleep.
4. There's Disagreement On Whether Small Meals Are Best
The idea of eating small meals throughout the day as a plus for digestion isn't universally agreed to be best. While Tew and Travers says they're better for your digestion than having fewer, larger meals, Kahn disagrees. "Certain digestive functions happen more effectively on an empty stomach," she tells Bustle. "For example, stomach acid and digestive enzymes, which help break down our food, are triggered by hunger." She recommends about a four-hour window between meals. It's helpful to experiment to see what works for you; do you feel full of energy and sated when you eat several times throughout the day, or take your meals with larger gaps in between?
5. Remember To Chew Your Food
Timing your meals throughout the day is one thing, but experts also suggest you pay attention to the time it takes you to eat each meal — and, ideally, make it last a bit longer. "Digestion starts in the mouth with chemical digestion from your saliva and mechanical digestion from chewing," Travers tells Bustle. "By slowing down your eating and chewing your food well, you can ensure that food reaches your stomach already partially digested."
Partly-chewed food is more difficult for the stomach and the gut to break down. "If you don’t do this stage effectively then the stomach and then the intestines after will have work much harder and that can cause discomfort and bloating," she explains.
Travers advises putting your cutlery down between mouthfuls, while Papadakis recommends spending at least 20 minutes on every meal. "It's not as long as you think," she tells Bustle; "it takes that amount of time for your gut to signal to your brain that it’s had enough food."
6. Pay Attention To Other Illnesses That Can Affect Digestion
Digestion can be affected by many medical conditions, and that in turn should change how you time your meals, says Papadakis. "If you’re suffering from SIBO or IBS, meals should be spaced four to five hours apart to give your digestive system optimal time to rest and digest," she tells Bustle.
However, even illnesses that don't appear to have much to do with the digestive system still benefit from specifically timed meals. People with insulin resistance, says Papadakis, should stop eating when they're 90% full to prevent a spike in glucose, while those with anxiety or depression might want to eat smaller high-protein meals throughout the day. This, she says, "helps keep blood sugar stable and provides the necessary amino acid precursors needed to make neurotransmitters."
There's actually a lot of personal variation when it comes to the "correct" times to eat for good digestion — and the schedule is influenced by medical conditions like IBS that might affect digestive health. As with anything when it comes to nutrition, hard and fast rules don't work, and in fact can be harmful to your relationship with food. But if you find yourself with consistently poor digestion, making a mindful effort to change up your meal timings might be helpful.