It's not (entirely) WHAT you eat, but WHEN you eat it..

I taught a yoga and wellness retreat a few months back and one of my students asked the question that launched a billion diet products (most of which don’t work).. What is the best way to lose weight? I responded without a second delay, eat an earlier and lighter dinner. It is the first habit I teach in my online health coaching program Align to Thrive which starts again in April . Too often diet and nutrition specialists talk about what we should or shouldn’t eat but completely ignore that it’s not just WHAT of diet but WHEN. For me, and students I have worked with, this simple habit is magical. Yup, my clients have called this habit magical.

Earlier, lighter dinner - a simple dietary habit that eliminates the need to actually diet.

First of all, what is earlier and lighter? Earlier means aiming for dinner by 6pm. Both eastern and medical science agree, we have the strongest digestive potential during the hours of 10am and 2pm. This is lunch time, not dinner time. Western science says our bodies produce the most bile during this time, which aids in digestion, absorption and elimination. In Ayurveda, we call it agni — our digestive fire or capacity. Whatever term you use, we should eat the most in terms of quantity, calories and complexity of foods when we have the most ability to digest and absorb it - from 10 until 2. The later we eat dinner, the less ability we have to fully digest our food before we go to bed. Not only can that compound over time into an expanding dress size, it can also make our sleep crappy, our minds dull and heavy, our emotions more volatile, and even depress our mood.

What does lighter mean? I think of lighter in terms of calories, complexity and relative ease to digest. I save milk or animal products, rice, breads, pastas and foods that have been processed for earlier in the day and opt for mainly water-based foods like veggie soups, salads (with warm vegetables depending on season), stews or easy veggie stirfries at dinner. If I am really hungry, I add in a healthy fat or good protein like dhal or chickpeas.Options abound.

Most people know that it’s not good to eat a lot at night, but knowing is different than doing. Most of my clients say they are being good at lunch by eating a small lettuce salad or soup. (Labeling ourselves or our food choices as good or bad is of course a whole other topic beyond the scope of this blog, but anyways..). Then, after spending most of their waking hours with little sustenance, they are starved at dinner and tend to overeat — which they later feel bad about. Having a big dinner (like spaghetti or pizza) at 8pm after very little sustenance for the last 12 waking hours is like going from 20km per hour to 200km down the autobahn in a few seconds for your digestion. It’s like someone turned the digestion switch from almost completely OFF to fully ON. Our body then has to work really hard to digest our food and then assimilate it when it really wants to wind down and shut off. Digestive problems and weight gain are inevitable for the majority of us in this scenario.

When my clients shift to eating an earlier, lighter dinner, they lose weight. Period. Often a lot of weight if they had a lot of weight to lose - I have had students lose up to 6 or 7 kilos in 10 weeks from this habit alone. Most are shocked that it is this easy. No weird elimination diets or starvation. Lunch simply shifts to center stage and replaces dinner as the main meal. What used to be eaten for dinner (including if you eat pastas, breads, cheese, animal products, desserts on occasion) gets pushed to lunch when we eat the most calorie and nutrient-dense meal of the day.

Yes, you may already know this, but are you doing anything about it? Changing habits isn’t usually a knowledge issue. It is an implementation issue. People achieve their body goals when working with me (and a group) when they can’t do it alone because if you find the right coach, coaching works. As does doing (especially hard) things with others. We support one another until support isn’t as needed - kind of like using a block for a yoga posture until we get enough practice in that the block isn’t needed.

If you are currently eating a heavy dinner at 7, 8 or 9pm, this may seem like a Herculean shift. Most of us are used to setting big, lofty goals (going from 9pm to 6pm dinners overnight for instance) and then trying accomplish the goal in the shortest time possible. While it may be alluring and exciting to change things so dramatically, it also rarely works and often ends in burnout, frustration, and failure. Our minds are hard-wired to resist large, cataclysmic change. But small, bite-size 1% changes work. If your dinner is currently at 9pm, start by scaling it back by 15 minutes to 8:45pm for a week. Then scale it back another 15 minutes the second week if that goes well, and then another 15 minutes the following week.. You see where I am going with this. Dinner too heavy? A kaizen move would be to continue eating the heavy foods, but eat one bite less, then 2 bites less, then shift from a large dinner plate to a smaller salad plate.

Worried about how this will play out in your social life? We as human beings are a lot more adaptable to change than we think. While I do make exceptions in special instances, my friends and partner have come to know over time that if they want me to join in an 8pm dinner, I will probably join just for a drink and conversation. There was a little discussion about that in the beginning, but it isn’t an issue anymore. Pushing others to adopt my health habits is not my prerogative and my loved ones are free to make their own choices as much as I am free to make mine. AND I have so much more time in the evenings since I am not cooking elaborate dinners to come up with different ways of sharing time with others. Over food is one option, although not the most creative one. :)

So.. I do help people to lose weight in my courses. I don’t market it like that, as I am not in, nor do I desire to be in, the weight loss industry. Weight is a really inconsequential thing in the grand scheme of things. But as a person who successfully recovered from an eating disorder, I know how important it is to feel good in your body and how draining it is to not. And I know how it impacts your self esteem and confidence generally, which has a subtle but profound effect on how you see yourself in your work, relationships and socially. It’s great to feel good about yourself. This impacts everything. And our body size is part of that. So yeah, I do help people find their ideal body weight. But on a deeper level, I help you grow your relationship to yourself – your intuition, your bodies’ needs and desires and your self-worth. Now that’s magic. Want to learn more about my April coaching course?

Kari Zabel