For Optimum Digestive Health: When You Eat Matters, Not Just What You Eat

Everyone is familiar with the adage "you are what you eat". It means what you eat matters and determines the way your body works; if you eat well, your body functions well and vice versa. But did you know that 'when' you eat is just as important for you to maintain an optimum digestive system?

Eating Late at Night Can Make You Fat

Eating late at night or during the wee hours of the morning has become the habit of many Malaysians. This is evident from the numerous eating stalls, coffee shops and restaurants mushrooming in various parts of the country. The food and drinks served include high fat and salt dishes and sugar-laden beverages.

Habitually eating late at night can lead to being overweight. Our biological clocks have our metabolism working optimally during the day but slow down as the hours get late. In other words, energy is not processed as efficiently and therefore gets stored as fat in the body. In addition, when you eat late at night, there is also a higher likelihood of you consuming more calories than recommended because it can be so easy and tempting to go overboard.

Regularly eating late at night can also be detrimental to digestive health. One study reported that there was a higher rate of gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, dyspepsia, and peptic ulcer among night workers due to the changes in the timing of their digestive process. Frequent late night meals have also been cited as one of top three triggers of heartburn along with high consumption of fatty foods and eating large meals too often.

There is a positive association between frequent late night meals and weight gain that also affects your digestive health condition. So opt for an early dinner and avoid eating large meals.

Should I Skip Meals?

Never! Ditching any of the major meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) would just add to your hunger and increase the likelihood of you overeating at the next meal.

Overeating may lead to indigestion. When you tend to overeat, the digestive enzyme is very limited and they take time to digest bulk food.

It can slow down the digestive process and the food remains in the stomach for a longer duration. This fullness of the stomach may cause stomach pain and discomfort.

Apart from that, you can also get heartburn, nausea, and bloating. Overeating in the long run also leads to serious health conditions such as being overweight and obese.


No single food can give you the variety of nutrients that your body needs to stay healthy.

If you are on trying to lose some weight, try eating healthier food items but do not fixate on a single type of food. Include all the five food groups recommended in the Malaysian Food Pyramid for a balanced meal every day. Aim for variety and mix it up from day to day so you do not get bored. It also helps ensure you optimise the type of nutrients you take in. Eat more fruits and vegetables, they come in many different shapes, colours and taste. They are also low in calories, can easily satisfy your hunger and even help you meet your recommended daily quota of fibre (20-30g/day). Other good sources of fibre include whole grains and legumes (peas, lentils, and beans) which also help to relieve constipation and some irritable symptoms. Eating smaller but more frequent meals during the day is also a good way to help lose those unwanted pounds.

To stay healthy or lose weight, there is no need to skip meals. Just be sure to portion them well and practice the principles of B.M.V (Balance, Moderation and Variety) – eating different types of food for every meal in appropriate portions.

Time it Right

Lying down or slouching on the couch after a hearty meal is something some of us are guilty of doing. But this seemingly innocent act can disrupt the digestive process. When you lay down, digestive juices in your stomach can flow back into the oesophagus and cause heartburn or indigestion.

You should wait 2–3 hours before going to bed after a meal. This should give your stomach ample time to process the food you just ate. The same principle applies to vigorous exercise after meals. When you exercise, your muscles move more vigorously than when you are at rest. More blood is pumped to the exercising muscles to deliver the additional oxygen, to create more energy. If you eat a meal right before exercise, your digestive organs and muscles compete for blood, making both exercise and digestion more difficult to perform. Similarly, exercising on a full stomach can cause stomach pain, cramps and may even lead to nausea and diarrhoea.

Other Important Dietary Habits

By now we understand when and what you eat are both very important considerations for gut and optimal health as well as maintaining a healthy weight. But let's not forget that there are other habits that you can practice that can be just as beneficial.

  • Eat slowly, try to savour and enjoy the meal. Be mindful and pay attention to whether your hunger is satisfied.
  • Use the plate below as a guide to achieve a balanced meal:

    Balanced meal plate
    1. Half of the plate for vegetables and fruits
    2. ¼ of the plate for cereals, cereal products, and tubers
    3. ¼ of the plate for fish, poultry, meat (preferably lean), egg or legumes
    4. Choose plain water or milk. Try to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks.
    * Drink at least 8 glasses of plain water daily.

  • Choose healthier cooking methods (e.g. steaming, grilling, and stewing) and reduce the use of sugar, salt, fat and oil.
  • Reduce the intake of processed food & high fat foods which are more difficult to digest.
  • Include foods containing prebiotics (e.g. onion, garlic, and asparagus) and probiotics (e.g. cultured milk drinks, tempeh, miso soup, and yoghurt) to improve your digestive health.
  • Keep adequately hydrated throughout the day.
  • To avoid overeating, eat healthy, if you need to, consume low calorie snacks in between meals.
  • Ask for your food to be prepared with less salt, sugar or oil when dining out.

Combined with physical activity, healthy eating habits and a properly timed diet, good nutrition can help you to maintain a healthy weight, promote good gut health, reduce your risk of chronic non-communicable diseases, and bring about overall optimal health.

Posted On
25 April 2018
Dr Tee E Siong
Committee member of Digestive Health Malaysia (DHM)

The author/expert is not associated with, and does not endorse any brand or product. This article is the courtesy of VITAGEN HEALTHY DIGESTION PROGRAMME.

An Initiative by

Latest Articles

Probiotics for Gut Health
Pilihlah produk probiotik yang tulen
Pilihlah produk probiotik yang terbaik dan tulen untuk keluarga anda.
Probiotics for Gut Health
Probiotics for Gut Health
Choose Genuine Probiotics Products
Choose the best and genuine probiotics products for your family.