Research and Effects of Eating Habits
According to Ayurveda, our personality is determined by what we eat since food affects one’s health and state of mind. The philosophy of conscious and healthy eating is greatly emphasized in the Ayurveda texts. According to these texts, if digestion is not optimal, it can trigger imbalances in other systems of the body, including the mind. Optimal digestion directly and swiftly corrects imbalances and in doing so, brings an end to suffering and prevents future disease.
Most of us experience digestive disturbances routinely in our lives, some acute and some chronic. Correction of the digestive system is an integral part of the treatment no matter if the imbalance is in the body (deha) or mind (manas). Ayurveda also stresses the importance of being in tune with nature while eating consciously. Through food, we connect to nature and become one with it. When we live in harmony with nature we experience optimal health and digestion and peace of mind. When we are out of harmony, we experience suffering. Furthermore, our close connection with nature also helps us to become aware of the role of the sun in impacting our digestion.
Following the Rhythm of the SUN:
The sun represents the fire element (Tejas: heat, fire and light) and in the physical body this is reflected as the process of transformation of the food by the fire and heat of the digestive juices (Jatharagni and Pachaka Pitta). Thus, at noon when the sun is at its peak in the sky, digestion is stronger and optimal. Similarly, digestive capacity is at its ebb during dawn or in the evening twilight when the sun is either rising or setting. Therefore, Ayurveda recommends eating the largest meal during the midday hours and smaller meals in the morning and evening. Such timed meals based on the sun’s position not only prevent weight gain and onset of other digestive related problems but also ensures a disease-free long life.
Research on Meal Times:
The above mentioned principles of eating consciously in tune with the sun’s position are now supported by several research studies. According to one such study (1), having lunch as the main meal of the day (anytime before 3 pm) in fact could help lose weight. The prospective study, carried out by an international team of researchers involved 420 overweight men and women. These individuals had a restricted calorie intake of approximately 1,400 calories per day for twenty weeks. The participants were divided into two groups: early-eaters who ate their lunch before 3 p.m and late-eaters that ate after 3 p.m. The results indicated that, (a) Early eaters lost an average of 22 pounds in 20 weeks; late eaters lost about 17 pounds, (b) Late eaters consumed fewer calories during breakfast and were more likely to skip breakfast than early eaters and (c) Late lunch eaters had lower insulin sensitivity which is a risk factor for diabetes
Weight Gain and Time of Meals and Sleep:
The researchers also noted that the effects of sleep and biological clocks have a close association with weight regulation in animals. Thus, if the timing of meals does not match with the sleep cycle there is a disruption in the circadian rhythms leading to obesity and other physical problems. The results of the study not only demonstrate the need to avoid eating late at night, but in addition, the findings unequivocally demonstrate that the timing of meals is a clear predictor of weight-loss effectiveness. While in some countries the main meal of the day happens to be lunch, here in the U.S., the largest meal of the day coincides with the setting sun (aka dinner).
Healthy eating principles apply to eating practices during the night as well. According to ayurveda texts, a light meal coinciding with the setting sun is a healthy eating practice that keeps the body-mind in a harmonious state. The texts also recommend not to indulge in any food after the last meal of the day and to break the fast following sunrise thereby providing a fasting gap of 10-12 hours between the last meal in the night and the first meal the next morning.
Daily Fasting Period and Keytone Bodies:
Research studies indicate that in the absence of fuel during a fasting period of 12 hours, the brain switches from glucose to fat metabolism leading to the release of ketone bodies that have neuroprotective effects (2). Results from a recent study show that a 9h fasting in mice leads to significant antidepressant effects (3). Furthermore, in a pilot study (4), involving 20 patients with mild-moderate Alzheimer’s disease, increasing the ketone bodies in the brain improved cognitive performances. While ketogenic diets can be a good source of ketone bodies, a very high fat diet to boost the level of ketone bodies can have significant adverse effects. Instead, a ~12hr fast is an attractive method to naturally raise the endogenous levels of ketone bodies.
Healthy Habits = Healthy Body:
The body of evidence linking healthy eating to physical and mental health is growing at a rapid pace. All the evidence thus far indicates that healthy eating habits play an important role in the development, management and prevention of a gamut of physical and mental diseases. This is underscored by the Ayurveda principles of Ahara-Vihara that seeks to optimize digestion and foster vibrant health and well-being.
(1) Garaulet et al. Timing of food intake predicts weight loss effectiveness. International Journal of Obesity (Lond);2013 Apr;37(4):604-11.
(2) Murphy T et al. Effects of Diet on Brain Plasticity in Animal and Human Studies: Mind the Gap. Neural Plasticity;2014;1-32
(3) B. Li, J. Zhao, J. Lv et al. Additive antidepressant-like effects of fasting with imipramine via modulation of 5-HT2 receptors in the mice. Progress in Neuro Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry;2014;48,199–206.
(4) Reger et al. Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults.
Neurobiol Aging;2004 Mar;25(3):311-4.