Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
A hardworking woman—let’s call her Nancy—hits upon a strategy for fighting the midday slump. “I’ll keep lunch very light—those really big sandwiches make me so drowsy,” she says to herself. “Instead, I’ll use my lunch break to jog to the market and buy organic groceries for dinner. Not only will I get some exercise, but then I’ll have stuff for a healthy dinner. And I’ll return to my desk energized.”
Nancy sticks to her plan for an entire month, only to find that she’s feeling worse than before she started her light-lunch program. She’s tired, irritable, constipated, and not sleeping well most nights. Why? Ask an Ayurvedic physician and you’ll likely hear that Nancy’s symptoms are a predictable result of her decision to go easy on what should be her most important meal of the day: lunch.
Stoke your Engine
Think of your body as a steam engine. To get going in the morning, it needs a fire started in its belly and plenty of fuel to chug out of the station. Halfway through the day, when the fire has consumed most of its energy but the train needs to keep on rolling, the engine wants refueling. But if you’re like the typical overly busy modern worker bee, you don’t heap coal on the fire; instead, you starve your body, driving it to run on the morning’s momentum—maybe tossing in a sugary treat and another hit of caffeine when you feel the power lag. Yes, your body rolls on, but it does so by burning up critical reserves. And finally, when it should be resting after a hard day’s toil, you eat a big dinner, essentially throwing buckets of coal into a dying fire. The embers flare up, but the engine isn’t going anywhere. Uselessly overheated, it creaks and groans all night, and in the morning, when it should be fresh and rested, it is reeling from the previous night’s assault.
This isn’t an exaggeration. Just as the siesta has gone by the wayside in most industrialized and developing countries, the leisurely lunch is a thing of the past in most of the United States. An average American office worker mows through lunch in half an hour or less and then indulges in a big evening meal, which sits in the belly for hours, interfering with a good night’s sleep. Many people skip lunch altogether, with some 44 percent of the office population spending “lunch” time running errands, according to a 1996 Steelcase Workplace Index survey.
Fuel the Fire
The Ayurvedic word for digestive energy is agni, which means “fire.” When this inner fire flares up, you feel hungry. When you eat, the fire consumes your food to make essential energy. Fuel agni on time and it rewards you with a bounce in your step. But neglect it and it starts to feed on whatever it can find, depleting energy you could have used for other purposes.
So how can you tell when to feed your digestive fire? Ancient Ayurvedic healers have made it easy. They observed that agni follows the same rhythm as the sun. It ignites in the morning, intensifies at noon, and dims in the evening. Hence their insistence on a power lunch. As for dinner, just as the dying sun cannot warm sea water, a subsiding agni cannot fully digest a big evening meal—even if it is a healthy one.
That’s why one of the world’s most venerable Ayurvedic healers, Braihaspati Dev Triguna, gives his patients simple advice: Set your meal clock in rhythm with nature and you can put doctors out of business. “Work pressures have taught us to suppress those lunchtime hunger pangs, but if you reset your clock, you’ll rekindle your noontime agni, and that’s a sure sign of good health,” Triguna says, wearing his trademark turban and genial smile. Former president of the hallowed All-India Ayurvedic Congress, Triguna is a recipient of one of India’s highest civilian awards for distinguished service. Each morning, several hundred patients queue up at his humble clinic in New Delhi. Many of them go away with (among other things) a prescription for a healing, wholesome lunch. Eating a healthy lunch not only satisfies your agni, it also ensures that you won’t be starved at suppertime. You can then eat a light dinner, which will be easily digested at the end of the day.
Mix Your Meals
The ideal Ayurvedic lunch is well cooked, so it puts less strain on the agni (a raw salad taxes the agni, because it isn’t already warm and soft from the heat of the stove and can cause indigestion). It is made from fresh ingredients, so it is rich in prana (vital energy). And it offers a variety of flavors, to excite the taste buds and provide a balance of nutrients. In fact, dining on small portions of five or six distinct dishes is considered ideal.
So, if there were an Ayurvedic restaurant around the corner from you, its daily lunch special would include dal (mung bean soup); a well seasoned, sautéed vegetable; a couple of whole-grain chapatis (Indian flat breads); brown rice; a lightly cooked couscous or chickpea salad; a mint chutney; and a lassi (yogurt drink). Of course, it can be difficult to find such a spread when dining near an office park—or anyplace short of a Little India neighborhood—but wherever you eat (Mexican, Italian, Chinese, deli), you can learn to choose your foods wisely. Try these suggestions:
The Local Café: Ask for a cup of lentil soup with a squeeze of fresh lemon, whole grain toast, mildly spiced vegetable stew, cinnamon sweet potatoes or baked squash, and herb tea or lassi, if available.
The Taco Stand: Order up a burrito of whole beans, steamed vegetables, guacamole, and salsa in a healthy whole-wheat tortilla.
The Trattoria: Try a broth-based soup such as minestrone, pasta in marinara or primavera sauce, and sauteed spinach.
Chinese Takeout: Ask for steamed dumplings, stir-fried vegetables, and steamed rice.
The Corner Deli: Go for a heated tofu burger, falafel, or veggie sandwich and a side salad of cooked beets or wild rice and broccoli.
The Market: Bypass the white bread and try pumpernickel, rye, or whole wheat. Ditch the bologna and go for hummus. Avoid the cup of noodles and pick up some hearty lentil soup.
From Your Kitchen: Nothing’s better than a home-cooked lunch and it’s not as hard as you think. With a slow cooker, you can stir up some sensational meals in no time. Here are some ideas.
How to Do It
First, get a short, wide stainless steel thermos. Second, wake up just 15 minutes earlier than usual, cook some vegetables, pack them into the thermos, and you’re on your way. You can chop the vegetables the night before, using the time you formerly spent preparing or cleaning up after a big dinner. Or you can buy precut veggies from the supermarket. Cook them at home and eat them warm along with whole-grain bread at the office.
The slow cooker is another excellent ally in your quest for better nutrition. Set it up in your office kitchenette and put fresh vegetables (chop them at home if there’s no room for food prep at the office), beans, grains, and spices into it when you arrive at work; by lunchtime, a warm, delicious meal will be ready.
Remember, though, eating a high-octane lunch does not mean pigging out. Overeating can cause everything from sluggishness and indigestion to insomnia and depression. It’s best to leave some empty space in your stomach, or follow this simple rule of thumb: Eat only as much as you can scoop up with your palms cupped together. You’ll feel nourished but not overstuffed or drowsy.
Also, Ayurvedic practitioners advise against combining certain foods that have different attributes—such as taste, heating and cooling properties, heaviness, and postdigestive effects. For example, most fruits are digested quickly, but if eaten with milk or potatoes, they will stay in your stomach longer and can cause indigestion. Melon and grains also should be eaten separately. It’s a great idea to consult an Ayurvedic physician for guidelines on incompatible foods. In the process, you’ll also learn more about your unique mind-body constitution and get good counsel on the foods that would suit you best.
An often-asked question is, “Should I drink water with my meals?” Ayurvedic experts say go ahead, provided you avoid ice water, which can kill your appetite and dampen the metabolic energy you need for good digestion. Think of it this way: after building up a crackling fire, you wouldn’t douse the logs just before settling down in front of the fireplace for a cozy evening.
Savor the Flavor
OK, so you’re ready to eat. Before you dig in, a few reminders: don’t shovel it down by the forkful while tapping away on the keyboard or reading a thriller. Give lunchtime its proper due. Start by steering your mind toward the process—that of drawing pleasure from the meal before you. Appreciate the bounty of color, texture, and flavor on your plate. Savor the aroma. Take small bites and chew each one until you discover the rasa, or “essential juice” of your food. This simple act of mindful eating can work for you like meditation, connecting you totally with your senses and your soul. You’ll emerge from it feeling truly nourished and refreshed.
Sit for 10 minutes or so after lunch, either keeping quiet or enjoying pleasant conversation. A brief rest after the meal will give you a good start on digestion. If you can, lie down on your left side, essentially giving the stomach extra space. If not, sit on a park bench or even at your desk, enjoying a few minutes of meditation or contemplation before you return to your busy day.
Though it may not always come easily, making a minor fuss over lunch—ensuring that you eat a nourishing meal and take a moment to enjoy it—can change how you feel throughout the day. A balanced midday meal will rev up your energy levels, so you won’t be ravenous at night. After a light dinner, you’ll enjoy blissful sleep. And when morning comes, you’ll have a healthy appetite and a whole lot more pep in your step.