Debunked: Swimming After You Eat

Picnic basket with food on the beach

Friends, I’m here to say that this may be the most impactful article I have ever written. What you are about to read has the potential to alter the course of summer history from this day forward. I’m talking about swimming after you eat.

Most of us have probably heard, on more than one sunny beach or pool excursion, that we need to wait thirty minutes after eating before we jump in the water. This piece of “common wisdom” has been repeated every summer for many generations. Many of us have grown up to say these words to our own children and grandchildren, as well. This warning has been passed down through the ages, and it’s not something we often question.

However, I’m here to set the record straight on this warning that we all grew up with: swimming immediately after you eat is perfectly fine!

According to the “old wive’s tale” wisdom, there are two justifications given as to why you have to wait half an hour after eating before you swim. One is that if you eat a big meal, all the blood will rush to your stomach and intestines, therefore, not enough blood will be available to nourish your muscles, which you need to keep you afloat and swimming. You could get a cramp, and potentially drown, or so the story goes.

The second justification is less drastic, but simply states that swimming immediately after eating may make you uncomfortable, give you a stomachache, or just inhibit your body’s ability to properly digest your food. Swimming is obviously less enjoyable if your stomach is hurting and your digestive system is awry, so this warning has long been heeded.

The reality is that there isn’t a shred of evidence that swimming after you eat poses any risk at all. If you’ve eaten a huge meal and are already uncomfortable, you may not enjoy your swim as much, but there is no proof at all that swimming after a big meal will make your digestion worse, or that it increases your risk of cramping. This age-old warning is nothing but a superstition.

So, where did this myth come from? All superstitions have their origins, and waiting thirty minutes to swim after you eat is no different. In short, this myth got started by parents who were still enjoying their meals and didn’t want to get up to go watch the kids. Back in the day, beaches and pools did not have the same degree of lifeguarding that we often enjoy today. The sole responsibility of keeping children safe while swimming fell to parents. Of course, parents still ought to be paying attention, but having a trained lifeguard around takes some of the pressure off.

Now, anyone who has children knows that when there is a fun activity going on, kids will often hurry through their meal so they can get back to it. Parents back then wanted more time to enjoy their meals and beverages before running back to monitor their children, so they cleverly invented the myth of waiting for thirty minutes for them to “digest” before going back in the water. That way, they could have a nice, relaxed lunch by the water without leaving their food half eaten to run after their children. The myth caught on, and the rest is history.

So, now you know! There is no real danger involved in swimming immediately after eating. However, it’s up to you whether to tell your kids now, or wait until they’re older: you may have a beach picnic to finish, after all!

– Dr. Joshua Levitt