The way that an individual eats is almost as important as what she eats. If a person eats when she is stressed, shortly before she goes to bed or even when she has no appetite, her body assimilates nutrients less efficiently than usual. Taking the time to prepare a meal and to eat it in a relaxed environment and in a calm state of mind is a habit that many people neglect.
An individual’s approach to eating encompasses the frequency and regularity of meals; the timing of meals during the day (which can influence mental and physical performance and sleeping patterns); and the rituals of eating (the way that a meal is prepared and eaten). By eating regular nutritious meals at appropriate times during the day and in a relaxed atmosphere, an individual can derive maximum benefit from the food she eats.
FREQUENCY AND REGULARITY OF MEALS
An individual’s eating patterns tend to reflect her lifestyle – whereas some people always eat breakfast, lunch and dinner around the same time every day, others find it more convenient to ‘graze’, eating a number of smaller meals or snacks throughout the course of the day.
Three meals a day
Many people follow the three meals a day approach to eating because it suits their lifestyle. However, the structure of the working day often encourages individuals to miss breakfast – the first of the three meals – or to eat only a small amount, followed by a light lunch and then a large evening meal. A healthier approach reverses this order so that breakfast and lunch are substantial, providing the body with enough energy to keep going throughout the day; the evening meal should be lighter because the body is less likely to use up calories consumed in the evening. If there is a temptation to snack between meals, fruit or raw vegetables should be favoured.
The approach to eating known as grazing involves eating little and often. Small, frequent snacks that are rich in nutrients provide a constant source of energy throughout the day, maintaining steady blood-sugar (glucose) levels and preventing energy dips and hunger pangs. To facilitate good digestion, grazers should try to relax and give their full attention to eating, rather than trying to juggle work or other tasks at the same time.
Grazing may be an appropriate approach to eating for many people. It is especially useful for toddlers, whose small appetites are suited to five or six small meals or snacks a day and for teenagers who eat erratically. Pregnant women experiencing morning sickness may find that grazing helps to quell nausea; it may also suit new mothers who are too busy with the demands of a newborn baby to prepare full meals. People who have medical conditions such as diabetes or stomach ulcers, or who are troubled by indigestion, may find that the ‘little-and-often’ approach helps to ease their symptoms – they should check this with their doctor first. Grazing can also be a solution for elderly people who live alone and lack the energy or motivation to prepare main course meals.
There is a danger that grazing can lead to an over-consumption of calories, particularly among people who graze on snacks such as cakes, chocolate and biscuits. Eating three full meals a day can make it easier for people with this tendency to plan and keep track of calorie intake. Although grazing is helpful for busy people on busy days, the social aspect of preparing and enjoying main meals should not always be neglected.
TIMING OF MEALS
The type of food an individual eats at certain times of the day can affect her energy levels and performance, as well as the body’s ability to digest the meal. It is particularly important to choose the right type of food to start and end the day.
A good start to the day
Many nutritionists consider breakfast to be the most important meal of the day but it is frequently missed. An individual with a busy schedule may feel that she does not have time to eat breakfast, others say that they cannot face eating when they get up, and instead resort to unhealthy mid-morning snacks. Smokers often replace breakfast with a cigarette. Research shows that people who skip breakfast have slower reaction times than breakfast eaters. During sleep, glycogen (the storage form of glucose) produced in the liver maintains blood sugar levels. Breakfast is often eaten around 12 hours after an evening meal; by this time the body needs to replenish its fuel supply. A carbohydrate-rich breakfast provides the body with energy and replenishes its glucose stores, improving performance for both children and adults. Healthy wholegrain breakfast cereals, wholemeal bread, yoghurt and fresh fruit provide a nutritious, energy-giving start to the day.
If an individual feels hungry by mid-morning, she may not be eating enough at breakfast. Caloric intake at breakfast can be increased by adding fresh or dried fruit to wholegrain cereals, combining several types of fresh fruit topped with natural yoghurt and a sprinkling of nuts or seeds, or eating a banana with some wholemeal bread. Break-fast is best eaten when the individual is fully awake and able to enjoy the meal.
Diet and sleep
If a person goes to bed feeling either hungry or over-full, a poor night’s sleep is often the result. Too little food results in distracting hunger pangs, and too much food can cause indigestion, heartburn or flatulence. Late-night meals that are greasy, spicy, rich or heavy may also detract from sleep quality. Dinner should be eaten at least 2 hours before going to bed; if the meal is rich or heavy, it should be eaten at least 3 hours beforehand. Chocolate and caffeinated drinks, such as tea, coffee and cola, are stimulants and should therefore be avoided in the evening. However, milky drinks or herbal teas can have a calming effect.
PREPARATION AND MOOD
The way that a meal is prepared and eaten can affect an individual’s digestion. A meal that has been prepared and eaten in a relaxed manner is more easily digested than a fast food meal eaten on the move.
Many traditions hold that food should be prepared with mindfulness; a cook should be absorbed by the tastes, textures and smells of the ingredients, and focused on the act of cooking, rather than worrying about the problems of the day. Laying the table and lighting candles can help to enhance mood, and delicious aromas and attractively presented meals set the digestive juices in motion and enhance enjoyment.
Stress has a detrimental effect on digestion, and indigestion or heartburn are common side-effects of eating while feeling stressed. Feeling nervous, anxious or frightened can also have a negative effect on digestion, resulting in diarrhoea, when food passes rapidly through the body, and there is no time for the nutrients to be assimilated. Ideally mealtimes should be treated as periods of conscious relaxation where stresses are forgotten and the focus is on enjoyment of the meal.
In many homes the focus of mealtimes has changed from eating at home with the family to eating fast food meals away from home. Meals eaten in this way are usually convenience foods that are high in fats and additives and low in nutrients. This type of meal is often eaten while the individual is busy; the body has to try to digest the food while engaged in other activities, resulting in indigestion and heartburn.
The environment and how an individual responds to it can affect the uptake of nutrients. Eating in a hurry, while sitting in a car, or hunched in front of a computer or a television, interferes with the smooth functioning of the digestive system. Ideally, meals should he enjoyed at the table, in a relaxed setting, regardless of whether a person eats alone or in company. Although good conversation adds to the pleasure of dining, Eastern wisdom warns against having emotional or heated conversations at the dinner table. The religious tradition of saying grace at mealtimes gives the opportunity for the individual to focus on the meal that follows, and this can be achieved by a spoken word of thanks to the cook before starting to eat.
Eastern traditions also emphasize the importance of eating the right amount of food and avoiding over-indulgence. Ayurvedic practitioners recommend tuning into your body and asking yourself, ‘Am I really hungry?’ Hunger is your body’s way of letting you know that the previous meal has been digested properly. Most important of all, Ayurveda teaches that people should never eat beyond the point of feeling comfortably satisfied; if you start to feel heavy and full, but still continue to eat, you are not leaving enough room in your system for the digestive fire to complete its work.
If an individual remains at the table for at least 10 minutes after eating the last mouthful, she is less likely to suffer from indigestion and heartburn. Although the most important function of cleaning the teeth after a meal is to maintain dental hygiene and prevent tooth decay, an individual can also use this process as a signal that a meal is over; the taste of food is removed from the mouth so the individual is less likely to continue eating. Exercise should be avoided for around 2 hours after a large meal. Gentle post-meal exercise, such as walking, can be beneficial as it increases calorie expenditure and fat metabolism.