I like to start the day with warm lemon water, or hot ginger tea. But THEN what?
And conflicting opinions, conflicting opinions...
One reason you see a wide variety of recommendations about how to eat is that there are lots of ways to eat that work.
What's best for you depends on your preferences, the time of year, your health, and your constitution. If you're a little confused about what to put (or whether to put ANYTHING) in your belly first thing in the morning, here are FOUR good-to-know things to help you find what's best for you.
1. We have the most qi (“chee,” or functional energy) in our digestive systems in the morning, between about 7 a.m. and 11 a.m. It's a good time to eat!
This time of year, I love a good breakfast soup. It's pretty easy. I put some leftover yummy stuff in a pot. Whatever I find in my snapwares in the fridge: my latest veggie medley, some roasted sweet potatoes, a ground turkey mash. Then I pour some broth over it. Often it's a rich bone broth I made myself, and sometimes it's packaged stock. I warm it up, and I savor it.
In every meal production, it's great if you can give vegetables a starring role. And since breakfast-time is when we have so much qi for making the most out of our food, it's a good time to have a complete meal. Round it out with a supporting cast of smaller portions of protein and starch.
You can do this in a smoothie or in a scramble just as easily as I do with a soup. Fruit also makes a great star.
2. It's good to eat warm. Or, at least, eat not-cold.
In the Chinese Medicinal understanding of the body, our digestive system is a bit like a soup pot itself, warming and softening everything up so that we can break it down and absorb what we need.
We're not supposed to cool the soup pot down with cold food or drinks. (This is why your acupuncturist friends always ask for “water with no ice” when you eat out.)
In addition to the physical temperature of your food, there's the “thermal nature” of your food. That's the effect it has on your metabolism, and the temperature of your own body. You've probably felt it: ginger is warming, mint is cooling. Onions warm, cucumbers cool.
Fruit tends to be cooling, as do most green veggies (especially from the sea; think spirulina powder in your smoothie). I often have a smoothie for breakfast. I either let it come to room temperature before I drink it, or even gently warm it up. You can also warm up its thermal nature and make it easier to digest by throwing in some cinnamon or ginger.
3. When you give yourself about 12 hours between dinner and breakfast, you can fully digest your dinner AND have ample hours for your body to focus on detoxification and repair.
You can make this window longer and go for 16 hours, as the intermittent fasters do, IF that suits you. (And it's not for everyone.) You can also stretch the benefits of the 12-hour window by having a liquid meal at one end of it. That usually means a smoothie for breakfast, or a pureed soup for dinner (a la Dr. Junger's Clean Program).
You can increase the benefits of this even more by doing your liquid (or your smaller, lighter) meal in the evening.
As I mentioned, we have the most qi for digestion in the morning. Breakfast, ideally, is a large meal. Lunch can be smaller. And dinner can be the lightest of all. If you're going to do a vegetarian meal, or a liquid meal, or just a meal where you eat a smaller quantity – dinner is the ideal time to do it. And, dinner ideally happens no less than a few hours before you go to sleep.
(Finishing dinner a few hours before bedtime is key for deep, restorative sleep.)
All that being said, dinner might be the family meal time, or community event time, or work social time.
So, no big deal. If you have a big dinner, consider having a liquid meal in the morning. I actually love doing smoothies for breakfast. How better to get in my green powder, my collagen protein powder, and a megadose of acerola cherry? I use just-boiled water as the liquid in my smoothies, so that they're not so frigid, and they come up to room temperature sooner.
And while we're on the liquid subject – celery juice. Are you into it? Then do it! It has lots of benefits. But it's not breakfast.
Anthony William (author of the Medical Medium books, who's popularized celery juice) doesn't suggest you have celery juice INSTEAD of a complete, nutritious meal in the morning, just that you have it first thing, on an empty stomach, and then have your food or smoothie afterward.
4. Check your breakfast favorites for triggering foods.
There is nothing wrong with a piece of buttered toast, scrambled eggs, yogurt, and a cup of coffee with cream – as long as there's nothing wrong with them FOR YOU.
I know this might not be what you want to hear, but it has to be said: most people I work with do have a problem with at least one of those items. Some people have a problem with all of them.
Now, there are indeed those rare people who experience no change in symptoms or inflammation levels when they eat all the gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, soy, etc. that they want. If that's you, you're fortunate! Those are nutritious foods. Carry on. Enjoy your breakfast.
But if you're struggling with any health issues or looking to optimize your health and resilience, I encourage you to try a cleanse/elimination diet for a few weeks. You'll probably be amazed by how different you feel. When you systematically reintroduce the commonly triggering foods (like gluten, dairy, and eggs), you can identify which ones bring you trouble, and keep them off your plate.
(I do cleansing/elimination diets with most of my clients and patients. This is something I can guide you through in detail personally.)
Okay, to sum it up:
1. For breakfast, eat something, or drink a smoothie. Include vegetables and fruit, and smaller amounts of protein and starch.
2. Eat or drink it at room temperature or warmer.
3. Give yourself 12 hours between dinner and breakfast. If you can, eat a light dinner and a big breakfast. If you eat a heavy dinner, consider opting for a breakfast smoothie.
4. Keep any triggering foods off your plate, and fill it up with the things that nourish you best.
Here's to your happy, healthy, grateful eating. What a blessing to be able to eat, to be able to choose how to eat, to have access to the foods that help us heal and thrive.