When we make strides to eat better, we often think only of what we eat, not when we eat. In this post, I talk about the importance of spacing out our meals properly and why we might want to consider Intermittent Fasting (IF).
Note: If you suffer from diabetes or other medical conditions, please talk with your doctor before making any changes to your eating patterns.
Why Is Meal Spacing Important According to Ayurveda
So often we reach for food out of boredom, because we are stressed or simply because we think a certain time of day means mealtime. However, it is important to allow significant time between meals to give your body time to digest the previous meal and to allow true hunger to develop. In Ayurveda there is a term called Agni, meaning your digestive fire. If you eat before you are hungry, your agni isn't ready to digest yet and it's like throwing water on that fire.
Therefore, eating when we aren't truly hungry leads to poor digestion, which in turn leads to un-metabolized substances that can't be used by the body, gumming up the works. In Ayurveda, we call this ama. Ama is best defined as toxins caused by partial digestion. Ama accumulates in the body, causing inflammation and disrupting our body's cellular processes, leading to disease.
Symptoms of Ama
Indigestion, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation
Fatigue & heaviness (vs feeling light and energetic)
Congestion not related to an acute illness such as a cold
Susceptibility to infections
Gallstones / Kidney stones
and many other inflammatory symptoms
How Much Time Between Meals Is Enough?
The general rule of thumb is at least 3 hours between meals or snacks. However, everybody is different. It is important to tune in to how you feel. You should feel light and you should feel hunger physically in your stomach before you eat. It is important to realize the difference between true hunger and simply wanting to eat for the enjoyment and comfort it brings.
Once you really learn to tune in and stop eating just because the clock or emotions tell you to, you may find that 6 - 8 hours between meals actually feels good and you do well with only 2 meals a day. Or, you might find that 3 hours is your limit and you can schedule 3 meals and even 2 snacks into your day to make that work.
Eating Before Bedtime
If you can avoid it, please do. Unless you have very strong digestion that leads to you waking up hungry in the middle of the night (or sugar issues, in which you should be talking to your doctor before changing anything about how you eat), you should avoid eating 2 - 3 hours before bed. You don't want to be in the middle of digesting a big meal as you are trying to sleep. In a perfect world, you should be a little peckish when you go to bed.
If you feel you must eat a little in order to sleep through the night, keep it snack-sized and fairly simple. Maybe just spiced milk, some yogurt, a piece of fruit, or a handful of seeds or nuts. As with everything in Ayurveda, experiment to find what works best for your body.
Now Let's Talk About Intermittent Fasting
There are a few forms of intermittent fasting (IF), and each alternates your eating pattern between a "substantial" fasting time (more than just the 8 hours we are sleeping) and eating time. Some people simply do two 24-hour fasts during the week, or alternate eating and fasting days. However, the easiest form of IF is to have a significant fasting period and an eating period every 24 hours. This last type is what I am going to discuss, as 24-hour fasts are not for the faint of heart. While they have benefits, they can also be hard on the mind and body.
Note - during the eating time, it is important to maintain proper meal spacing, therefore if your 'eating time' is only 6-8 hours, you will only eat 2 - 3 meals and no snacks.
When I say "substantial" fasting time, what do I mean? I mean at least a 13-hour period in which you take in no calories (water, coffee or tea with no sugar/milk are fine) every 24 hours. Why 13 hours? A magic thing happens at the 13-hour mark. It's called autophagy, defined as the destruction of damaged or redundant cellular components occurring when the body is in a fasting or starvation state.
This essentially means the body has a chance to clean house (reducing ama), which reduces inflammation in the body and also stimulates growth hormone, allowing our body to rejuvenate itself.
Allowing a significant fasting time will typically reduce our calorie intake somewhat, supporting us in maintaining a healthy weight.
Intermittent Fasting for Beginners
Once you get meal spacing down and you feel you are ready to try IF, you may be wondering how to start. You start by slowly moving, and then skipping meals, as required to eat only during your eating times.
As with any change, if you are interested in trying IF, start slowly. Start first by simply focusing on proper meal spacing. Then, move to a 14:10 pattern (this means 14 hours fasting, 10 hours eating). You can likely do this simply by not snacking in the evening after dinner. If you finish dinner at 6 pm, you would break your fast 14 hours later, at 8 am. You may never do anything more than this and that's fine. Just giving up evening snacking can have a huge impact on how you feel!
If intermittent fasting feels good and you want more, slowly add 1 more hour to your fasting time until you determine what works best for you, changing to 15:9 and then 16:8. If you still want more, try 17:7 or 18:6 and maybe even 20:4, if that feels right for you. Move slowly, let your body adjust, and don't push further than what feels good. Going beyond 16:8 is not appropriate for every body type (and even 16:8 is too much for some). Know yourself...tune in to what works best for you. More fasting is not always better. The key is to find your personal fasting sweet spot.
This is one thing I love about Ayurveda. There is no one-sized fits all rule. It is not about following a predesigned diet. There are recommendations and over-arching concepts, but it's about figuring out what your body needs, knowing that it will likely be different that what your best friend needs.
For anything from 14:10 to 16:8, only small shifts in our eating patterns are typically necessary. Slightly later breakfast, no snacking at night, etc. Once your eating times get shorter than 8 hours, you may have to skip breakfast and do brunch instead, then an afternoon snack and an early dinner. Focus on keeping your food choices healthy. When you are eating less, you need to be sure you are fueling your body with good foods. And that is another benefit of IF, you start to crave healthier foods.
The most popular option seems to be 16:8 timing. I think this is because it is relatively easy to do for most people.
However, we are all individuals and need to be able to adjust things to fit our bodies and our lives.
Some people (not me!) are very comfortable doing a 20:4, where they eat just 2 meals, spaced about 4 hours apart. It all depends on your body's constitution and your lifestyle.
You also might find that you can't do it every day, due to your schedule, or maybe every day needs to be slightly different. While there is something to be said for having a typical eating schedule (our bodies like routine), it isn't always necessary or even possible. Don't let perfect be the enemy of good.
I aim for 16:8 most days. However, often 15:9 just seems to work out better for me, some days it ends up 17:7, and some days I don't do IF at all. That's okay. The main goal is to try for at least 14:10 several times a week so you get a good hour of autophagy on those days.
Note on 20:4 - it is typically people with big body structures (big boned), slow digestion and high endurance that enjoy the 20:4. If you can eat a meal and not feel real hunger for many hours, this might be your thing. I will say it one more time though, it is not for most people and more fasting isn't automatically better if it's not appropriate for your body's constitution. Listen to your body and get to know it better while you give IF a try.