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Should You Wait an Hour After Eating Before You Go Swimming?

"You just ate! You have to wait at least an hour before you go swimming!"

You've certainly heard this warning before - from well-intentioned mothers and grandmothers at beachside picnics, for example - but is it fact or fiction?

Time's a Wasting

You genuinely feared heading into the water less than an hour after eating those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, believing you'd either sink to the bottom or get severe cramps and drown.

Well, your folks might have been thinking they were saving your life, but truth is that just about all of us can go swimming right after eating without concern ...

Swimming After Eating

According to Dr. Richard Fedorak, head of gastroenterology at the University of Alberta Hospital, "The simple average meal isn't going to affect your ability to get into the water. That's a myth, and we need to myth bust."

Origin of the Myth

Although it is not known when the myth began, this old wives' tale is based on the misinformed idea that the stomach will take away some of the oxygen needed by your muscles while swimming.

In reality, the digestive process does divert the circulation of the blood toward the gut and, to a certain extent, away from the muscles. However, you have more than enough oxygen to supply the stomach and skeletal muscles, and cramping might be the biggest result.

According to Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, a gastroenterologist at the New York University School of Medicine, "swimming strenuously on a full stomach could conceivably lead to cramps, but for most recreational swimmers the chances are small."

Others have thought the notion of swimming soon after eating is dangerous because of the discomfort experienced with strenuous exercise after a large meal.

Breaking It Down

Taking some time to digest one's food does make sense to settle any uneasiness or discomfort, but if you don't, it won't cause you to drown if you take a premature plunge into the sea.

Considering how food is digested, waiting for complete absorption of a meal is completely unnecessary.

After you consume food, the enzymes in saliva and the stomach begin the digestive process right away. About half of the consumed food remains in the stomach for two hours and for the stomach to completely empty it takes about four hours.

You don't need to sit around and wait for that to happen.

The type of food you eat, however, does make a difference in terms of digestion. Carbohydrates (like a carbonated beverage) are known to digest more quickly than a fatty meal (hamburger.)

Swimming After Eating

Neither the American Academy of Pediatrics nor the American Red Cross makes any specific recommendations about waiting any amount of time after eating before taking a swim. Statistics show fewer than 1% of all deaths by drowning in the United States occurred after the victim ate a meal, and other causes might have been a factor.

Safe Swimming

You might not have to wait around after eating before your splashing fun begins, but there are certain safety measures one should remember when swimming.

The American Red Cross recommends everyone follow these important safety tips:

  • Always Swim With a Buddy!

  • Know Your Swimming Limits and Stay Within Them

  • Obey All "No Diving" Signs

    • Enter feet first at all times unless you are very familiar with the swimming area

    • Learn the correct way to dive from a certified instructor

  • Watch For "Dangerous Too's." DON'T Swim If:

    • Too tired

    • Too cold

    • Too far from others/safety

    • Too much sun

    • Too much strenuous activity

  • Use Common Sense About Swimming After Eating

    • You do not have to wait an hour after eating before you swim unless it was a
      very large meal or you plan to swim strenuously

  • Alcohol Impairs Your Judgement, Balance, and Coordination

    • Alcohol affects your swimming and diving skills and reduces your body's
      ability to stay warm.

A study published in the journal Pediatrics found one-quarter of teenagers who drowned were intoxicated. A similar study on adults found 41 per cent of drowning deaths involved alcohol.

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