We’ve been told that we sit too much, but there is one time of the day when it’s best to stay off your feet
Q: Okay, I get it: I should sit less and stand more. But what about at mealtime—is it better to sit or stand while I eat?
A: You are correct that most people need to sit a lot less than they already do. And while we’ve been told to “move more,” “stand while taking phone calls,” “take the stairs instead of the elevator,” and “stand up while you work at your desk,” eating may be one of the few times it’s better to take a load off.
There is no direct research looking at the differences between standing and sitting while dining, but there are some clues from our physiology that I think point us in the direction of the preferred eating posture.
Rest and digest: Digestion is a process dominated by our parasympathetic nervous system, which has the famous tagline “rest and digest”—your body needs to be relaxed in order to process food efficiently, so it makes sense that we should also try to relax while eating.
When Japanese scientists fed women carbohydrates and then compared how the food was digested when the participants sat or laid down following the meal, they discovered that sitting lead to a greater increase in undigested carbs and a decrease in carb absorption. The researchers believe this may be because food leaves your stomach at a faster rate when sitting compared to lying down, perhaps due to the fact that sitting is less relaxing and therefore diverts blood away from the digestive system.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that the rate in which food leaves your stomach is even greater when standing compared to sitting or lying down, as being erect takes even more effort than resting on your rear. Since we are always aiming to slow the rate in which food leaves our stomach (except during exercise) in order to maximize satiety and boost the absorption of nutrients, sitting wins over standing in this situation.
Slow down: In our fast-isn’t-fast-enough society, we could all benefit from doing things more slowly, especially eating. Digestion starts while we are chewing, and research shows that chowing more leisurely allows your body to pre-release insulin in order to minimize total insulin release and maximize your blood sugar control. It is my experience that people eat faster when standing. Sitting down and focusing just on having your meal—and not Pining pictures of your future kitchen or replying to an employee’s email—is the optimal practice to decelerate the pace of your consumption, chew more, and ultimately optimize the metabolic fate of your meal.
So although sitting too much is hazardous to your health and you should find as many ways as possible to get off your butt during most of the day, when it’s time for a meal, sitting, eating, and enjoying probably is best for your digestion.
I think sitting will turn out to be similar to smoking: Forty years ago everyone smoked cigarettes and no one gave it a second thought. My father-in-law’s physician even recommended that he start smoking in order to help him relax more. Now the idea of a doctor recommending smoking is crazy; I believe in several decades we’ll look back and wonder how we could possibly have participated in such unhealthy behavior all day long.