Quantity and timing

Ayurveda states that at every meal we should fill our stomach to one half its capacity with food, one-quarter part water, and leave one quarter part empty to allow for stomach churning. In order to do this, the food should be carefully chewed, interspersed with small sips of water, eaten in a quiet environment and with mindfulness so as to become aware of the sensation of satiety. Most of the time we eat too much because we are distracted. We aren’t really paying attention to the process of nourishment, bearing witness to the miracle that transforms our food into the body. Instead our focus is externally directed, eating while we do other things, such as working, cleaning, driving, reading books, watching television or using computers. At the same time we are internally besought by emotions that drive us to eat if only to fill an emotional hole, substituting the feeling of having ‘enough’ for the feeling of being ‘stuffed’. Rather than listen to our poor stomachs we listen to the rapacious appetite of the tongue, which in Ayurveda is related to the element of water and quality of desire. The nature of desire is endless, but the body has its limitations. Being able to check in with one’s stomach and bypass the noise of the tongue is an important life skill to have.

For the average person, Ayurveda recommends no more than two meals a day, along with a light snack. Ideally, the two main meals should be in the morning after sunrise, and in the afternoon before or around sunset. If desired, a light snack can be had in the middle of the day. This way of eating is better for active people who need to keep their energy going all day long. In some places in India, and also in tropical countries such as Mexico, the largest meal of the day is taken at noon followed by a long rest (or siesta) during the heat of the day. This convenient adaptation is not just to avoid the heat, but helps accommodate the post-prandial dip that usually occurs whenever we eat a large meal. Although elegantly suited to hot climates, eating a large meal at lunch doesn’t accommodate the reality of the work-a-day world that most of us follow.

Ayurveda indicates that most of our food energy should be consumed by mid-day, when the sun’s energy and the body’s fire element have reached their peak. Unfortunately most people are in the habit of eating very light or skipping breakfast, grabbing a quick lunch, and then eating all afternoon and evening. The result is that not only do we eat more food than we realize, but we consume it during a time when our metabolism begins to slow down, and thus instead of burning food energy we end up storing it as fat. In my practice I usually find that most people do well by eating a large, low-carb breakfast that doesn’t spike the blood sugar, providing a sustained source of energy for most of the day. I find this one simple recommendation to be among the most effective to enhance energy, concentration and productivity in my patients, mirroring the practice of traditional cultures found in cooler, temperate climates.