As human beings, we are just not designed to eat much in the evening. We are designed to eat our main meal in the middle of the day. This is when the sun and our digestive fire are at their peak. Just as the sun sets in the evening and disappears by nightfall, our inner digestive sun, or ‘fire’, also sets. Think of a dynamic, blazing campfire that slowly dwindles in strength until it is just a bed of hot embers. This is similar to how our digestive fire lessens in strength from daytime to nighttime. After sunset, our digestion, along with all its related internal processes, moves into its resting phase in order to facilitate the next cycle of inner purification during sleep.
The ancients knew that eating lightly at night was the secret to ‘the sleep of the gods’. When we do this, our body can fully focus its energies on eliminating the impurities and stresses that have accumulated during the day. Without the burden of a big evening meal to digest, we are better able to repair, revitalise and rejuvenate ourselves and so wake up as Mother Nature intended: with the birds – bright, energised and motivated.
But what do we do? Most of us come home at 7, 8 or 9 o’clock at night and sit down to our main meal of the day. Steak and three veg. Chicken parmagiana that’s falling over the sides of the plate. Spaghetti bolognese with a side of chips. And would we like some ice-cream, a little slice of cheesecake or some apple pie just to top it off? Well, it would be rude not to. There are children starving in other countries, so it wouldn’t be right not to eat everything that’s in front of us! So we loosen our belts, dig in and eat until we feel like we’re about to give birth. When we do this, instead of waking up ‘bouncing out of bed with the birds’, we wake up heavy, dull and sluggish. We need two alarm clocks, a hot shower and three cups of coffee just to get ourselves into the land of the living. Of course, rather than believe that we might actually have anything to do with it, we simply blame our ‘slow metabolism’ and rationalise it all by declaring, ‘Oh, I’m just not a morning person’.
Though modern science has historically been more concerned with the old calories-in and calories-out understanding of weight management, a recent Northwestern University study has shown the first causal evidence linking meal timing to increased weight gain. The study, headed by Fred Turek, Director of the Center for Sleep and Circadian Biology, found that mice that ate at irregular times – the equivalent of the middle of the night for humans – put on almost two-and-a-half times more weight than mice eating the same type and same amount of food during naturally wakeful hours (48 percent compared to 20 percent). Turek said, ‘How or why a person gains weight is very complicated, but it clearly is not just calories in and calories out’. On summing up the study’s findings, he poignantly commented, ‘Better timing of meals … could be a critical element in slowing the ever-increasing incidence of obesity’.
All of this has of course been known for thousands of years in the Eastern traditions. Ayurveda tells us that large, heavy meals at night are not only likely to be poorly digested (as our internal fire is not so strong), but totally compromise our nightly rejuvenation cycle. Instead of our body’s resources going to help our brains revitalise, our livers detox and our muscles rejuvenate, they are diverted to our stomachs to try and digest the three-inch steak, the cheesy parmagiana or the chocolate pudding. Even worse, improperly digested food, known as ‘ama’ in Ayurveda, is not always easily removed from our bodies. Unless eliminated, such incompletely digested food accumulates night after night in our cells and tissues. Over time, this undigested mush starts blocking vital internal channels and impairing cellular communication. The ancient Ayurvedic texts clearly detail how ama directly leads to weight gain, joint stiffness, mental lethargy and a host of other imbalances. Indeed, improperly digested food or ama is said to be ‘the bed of all disorders’ as it blocks the natural flow of intelligence that underpins its proper functioning.
While modern science does not have this understanding, sticky residues or ‘plaques’ are known to interfere with many internal processes. Atherosclerotic plaque is what lines our arteries. Plaques build up in our joints and play roles in certain types of arthritis. Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia are commonly associated with plaques that build up between the neurons or communication channels of our brains. The normal flow of communication gets blocked and as a result all areas of mental functioning – memory, clear thinking, decision-making – begin to deteriorate. The question is, where do these plaques come from? Modern medicine does not really know. Enlightened medicine men and women of times past knew that the main cause of these plaques is the improper digestion of food. Every part of our bodies is, after all, nothing other than the food we have eaten. One of the most common ways we do this is by eating heavy or late dinners when our digestive fire is generally weak and less able to properly process food. It is well documented that one of the most significant differences between the diets of long-living people from traditional cultures and our own is that they eat far fewer calories per day. The Hunzans, for example, typically consume 500 to 1000 fewer calories per day than the average person in America and Australia. More importantly, most of their calories are consumed during the active, daylight hours, when digestion is strongest.
Wise ancient cultures who lived in harmony with the natural cycles knew to eat sparingly, if at all, once the sun went down. This is why traditionally the evening meal was known as ‘supper’. If one did eat after sunset it was only something that could be ‘sipped’ or ‘supped’. Why do we need a big meal at a night anyway? We’re about to go to sleep!