What if you could eat more and gain less weight? Or eat at a different time and feel more energy? It may sound like a gimmick, but 5,000 years of wisdom show us that living in tune with nature can help balance our weight, blossom our energy and clear our minds. With Ayurveda, yoga's sister science and arguably the oldest recorded medical system on the planet, it's not just what we eat, but when we eat it.

"Lunch, Ayurvedically, is designed to be the main meal of the day," says Mark Bunn, a Maharishi Ayurveda practitioner and author of "Ancient Wisdom for Modern Health." "Lunch is like the foundation of your house. Regularly skipping lunch or eating on the run when you're doing something else is like pulling the foundations out from under the house. Eventually the whole house comes crashing down."

This sounds revolutionary for Westerners, whose largest meal and family gathering is dinner. And we've been told for years that breakfast is the most important meal of the day (although new studies have started to refute that). But we also face chronic disease epidemics for which modern medicine has few cures. At a recent talk at the Transcendental Meditation center in San Diego, Bunn pointed out that native peoples and the world's longest living inhabitants thrive by living in harmony with the seasons and cycles of the natural world.

According to Ayurveda, we're made of the same elements as nature — space, air, earth, water and fire. When the sun peaks in the sky at high noon, so does the digestive fire in our bellies. Think of a sputtering bonfire getting started in the morning. You stoke it slowly with kindling, rather than a pile of logs. Analogously, Bunn recommends beginning the day with a light breakfast — instead of a heaping plate of sweet, sticky ooey gooey that will dampen the flame. By midday, however, the fire is ablaze. Digestive fire peaks between 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., noon being the apex. The best news about this window? You can eat more and gain less.

What your body can't eliminate, it stores. In Ayurveda, toxins called Ama block the subtle channels of the body. That can contribute to joint pain, arthritis, poor circulation, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmune conditions, even cancers, according to Bunn. 

By evening, the sun is setting and so is our digestive fire. If we sit down to a mountain of supper, we're eating beyond our capacity to digest. And that's where our life force goes during sleep: digestion. But there's a big down side. Bunn says big dinners hamper our body from performing vital overnight functions like detoxifying the liver, repairing tissue and storing memories in the brain.

"The main reason we wake up feeling like a log is large, heavy dinners," Bunn said.

For years, even in the traditional world, that's why health care practitioners have discouraged eating heavy meals too late at night. The adage "eat late, gain weight" isn't so much because of the time of the meal, however. It's more because we're likely to choose higher-calorie foods when we're dining and snacking later at night.

woman eating lunch outdoors

Photo: Ekaterina Pokrovsky/Shutterstock

Planning your day, Ayurveda-style

According to Ayurveda, here's how our body clock works best. (Keep in mind this is optimal, not what you have to do tomorrow!)

Breakfast: Ideal time is 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., after exercise and meditation. Keep it light and choose savory rather than sweet, as your appetite allows.

Lunch: Ideal time is noon to 12:30 p.m. Eat your main meal, including harder-to-digest foods like dairy, nuts and meat at this time, if at all. If you're not hungry, eat less breakfast tomorrow.

Snack: Ideal time is 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. Fruit or nuts with tea can curb your appetite for a hearty dinner. The snack is optional.

Dinner: The earlier the better. Stick with light and easy-to-digest foods, such as cooked vegetables, soups and grains or simply eat less harder-to-digest foods.

This is how traditional cultures have lived, and the world's longest-living inhabitants in places like Hunza, Pakistan and Campodimele, Italy continue to thrive, Bunn says. Think of families gathering for a long midday meal followed by a siesta in Italy, Spain and much of the Latin world. When we live in tune with the pulse in and around us, we enjoy greater well-being. When we override our natural rhythms, our health will suffer in some way, Bunn says.

"Wherever you can, shift your main meal of the day from the evening when the sun has set towards the middle of the day," Bunn says. "I guarantee that your energy levels and the quality of your sleep will go through the roof. If you've been trying to lose a few pounds, regardless of exercise or diet, you can lose more weight more easily than anything else."

This freelance writer is testing out Bunn's guarantee for herself, with encouraging results so far. A little nut butter and steamed almond milk does me just fine, sans the guilt of not eating a big breakfast like I've always been told I should. No more dining with the laptop over a late lunch, or those after-dinner snacks for no reason other than comfort and habit. Sure, being a social creature in the 21st century means some later dinners than our cave-dwelling ancestors enjoyed — but now I'm more mindful of what I eat after dark and how I feel the next sunrise. Observing cause and effect is a powerful tool.

For the many people who have short lunch breaks at work and cherished evenings with family at home, it's equally important to respect your situation and make the changes you can without adding stress. Take that 45-minute lunch break your boss affords you and look at something other than a glowing screen. Tune into the smells, flavors and textures of the food that nourishes you. Consider weighting your dinner plate with vegetarian fare, or simply skip seconds. Stay away from ice water, which hastily extinguishes that much-needed digestive flame and sip room temperature beverages or warm tea.

As I do, you may find this exciting in its splendid simplicity at times, and utterly impossible at others. There's always the sky to look to, that endless mirror for what's happening inside our very own bellies, and the simple comfort of coming back to a living, breathing world working its eternal mysteries through us.

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It's not just what you eat, but when
With Ayurveda, it's not just what we eat, but when we eat.