FAQs on Yoga and Nutrition

 By: Elizabeth Hubbard, University of Maryland Health Center, Dietetic Intern

I used to teach a 7:30 am yoga class, and my students frequently asked me a question that had nothing to do with poses or alignment: “Should I eat breakfast before class or after?”

In addition to such practical concerns, many students of yoga also find themselves pondering larger issues regarding yoga and food, like whether to practice with the goal of losing weight, or how to eat in an ethical way.   Here are my thoughts on a few common questions about yoga and food.

yoga nutrition

photo used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user daverose259

Q: Should I eat before class or after class (or both)?

From the perspective of Western science, the same guidelines regarding pre-exercise and post-exercise nutrition that apply to any kind of physical activity would also apply to yoga.

A light meal that combines carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and plenty of fluids should be eaten a few hours before exercise, and a small, similarly balanced meal or snack should be eaten shortly after exercise to replenish the body.

In the yoga tradition, teachers recommend allowing the body sufficient time to digest food prior to beginning practice, either an hour after a light meal or four hours after a heavy meal.

Yoga includes many postures that involve rotation and/or compression of the abdomen, such as twists and forward folds, which can be uncomfortable on a full stomach. Inverted postures like downward-facing dog pose and headstand can cause indigestion and exacerbate acid reflux if practiced too soon after eating.

But practicing first thing in the morning on a completely empty stomach may cause you to become light-headed or dizzy, and you may lack the energy and mental focus needed to practice effectively.

So what about that 7:30 am class?  Try to get up early enough that you can eat a small breakfast (such as a bowl of cereal or some yogurt and fruit) at least an hour before your practice.

Q: Can yoga help me lose weight?

 Whether yoga can—or should—be used for weight loss is a controversial topic.  Unless you do a vigorous ashtanga or vinyasa-style practice, in which poses are practiced rapidly and continuously, you probably aren’t burning that many calories doing yoga.

But yoga may aid weight-loss in other ways.  Yoga practitioners develop enhanced body awareness that makes them more sensitive to internal cues of hunger and satiety.

Yoga can also provide an outlet for stress relief that may replace eating for comfort.  A gentle, restorative practice can be a way to reward yourself that doesn’t involve food.

For more information on how to maintain a healthy weight, check out this information from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

More importantly, practicing yoga can help you cultivate a healthier relationship with your own body.

Many yoga practitioners credit their yoga practice with helping them heal from anorexia, bulimia, and chronic dieting.

For more info on healing from eating disorders, check out the National Eating Disorders Association.

Yoga can teach you to love your body’s own unique size and shape, and how to nourish your body in a caring way, rather than fixating on dress size or numbers on a scale.

Q: Why are so many yogis vegetarians?  Do I have to become a vegetarian if I do yoga? 

One of the ethical precepts followed by yoga practitioners is ahimsa, which is a Sanskrit word that translates into English as non-violence or non-harming.  Is eating meat a violation of ahimsa?

Opinions in the yoga community vary widely – on one end of the spectrum, teachers Sharon Gannon and David Life, founders of Jivamukti yoga, advocate a completely vegan lifestyle, while on the other end of the spectrum, Ana Forrest, a Native American shaman and well-known yoga teacher, is a hunter and carnivore.

Although teachers and spiritual texts can offer guidance, every practitioner must decide for him or herself how best to apply ahimsa to daily life and to dietary choices.

For more information on how to eat a healthful vegetarian diet, check out the Vegetarian Resource Group’s web site or these resources from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

There are many ways to practice ahimsa in your relationship with food that don’t have anything to do with meat.

  • Ahimsa might mean choosing organic or locally produced foods in order to minimize the impact of your food consumption on the environment.
  • Treating your own body with ahimsa may mean eating healthy foods that truly nourish you, rather than denying yourself food or stuffing yourself with junk food that doesn’t really satisfy you.
  • Practicing ahimsa in your relationships with friends and family may mean that sometimes you make exceptions to your own rules, for example, having some turkey at Thanksgiving dinner or eating the chocolate-chip cookies that a friend lovingly prepared for you.

Ultimately, you may find that the same virtues you cultivate on your yoga mat – balance, moderation, and healthy self-knowledge and self-regard – serve you well in your relationship to food too.

For more information about how a healthy diet can enhance your yoga practice,  sign up for a FREE diet analysis.

Share with us! What are some questions you might have about yoga and nutrition?

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