According to Charaka Samhita, one of the oldest medical texts known to man, one of the most important factors in human nutrition is the quantity of food we eat at any one meal. This may be stating the obvious, yet my impression, albeit anecdotal, is that many folk lack a sense of self-understanding when it comes to hunger, which combined with socio-behavioral conditioning, results in a failure to consume ‘correct’ amounts of food. As I write this article, I am struck by the multi-factorial nature of this problem. Let’s look at what Charaka has to say on the subject.
One should eat in proper quantity. The quantity of food to be taken, again, depends upon the power of digestion. [Charaka Samhita – Volume 1 – Chapter 5 – Quantitative Dietetics – Sutra 3]
Charaka is saying that to know how much food to eat, we need to understand our digestive capacity, which according to ayurveda depends on your prakriti (body type), age, sex, activity levels, etc. Knowing your unique digestive capacity requires, above all, that you ‘listen to your body’ and learn how to interpret what it tells you.
The first thing to get to grips with is to learn to tell the difference between hunger and appetite. Both are required for optimal nutrition. Sadly, many people eat without really tuning in and asking “am I really hungry” and “am I feeling desire for eating food”. Normally, when we are balanced in body and mind, we experience both the physical and emotional sides of hunger.
Ayurveda invites us to experiment with this dual aspect of hunger and especially, if we are not experiencing physical hunger, to delay eating until we do. Though real life can be complicated, most of the time (excluding moderate to severe illnesses), it is best to fast from food until you feel genuine hunger before you next eat. By doing this, we create a baseline upon which to build our experience of hunger and satiation upon.
More importantly, by only eating with the pre-requisite of hunger, we ensure that the body is actually ready and primed for digestion. Basically, if you are not hungry, you are probably still processing the last meal you ate. Assuming your body is reasonably healthy, and assuming you are not overly distracted by whatever is going on in terms of sensory stimulation (receptivity) and activities such as talking, exercising etc, you will notice when you get hungry and attend to that urge.
Depending on your prakriti and your overall activity levels, the frequency at which an adult will get hungry will vary from 1-4 times a day. More that 4 times a day indicates that you are either eating insufficient quantities of foods at meal times, or, you are not eating enough nourishing foods. A second reason can be that you actually have an imbalanced metabolism, either caused by high vata or high pitta.
Most of the time, I find that prakriti produces the following hunger patterns in healthy moderately active adults who eat a moderate diet based on mainly whole foods:
Vata and vata-pitta types – 4 times a day
Pitta types – 3 times a day
Pitta-kapha types – 2-3 times a day
Vara-kapha types 2 times a day
Kapha types – 1-2 times a day
These are of course subject to individual variation.
The amount of food which, without disturbing the equilibrium (of dhatus and doshas of the body), gets digested as well as metabolised in proper time, is to be regarded as the proper quantity. [Sutra 4]
Here, Charaka is suggesting that if you eat a meal where the quantity is appropriate for your digestive capacity, you will experience smooth running digestion and metabolism, then get hungry again at the appropriate time for your unique body type and current levels of activity. My experience is that when my activity is regular, and my eating habits are stable, the more my hunger pattern becomes reliable and predictable. Daily variations aside, I believe that someone who can practically tell the time from their own level of hunger is someone who is showing signs of health, at least in terms of basic digestive harmony.
Many factors influence whether or not our doshas maintain composure while we digest a meal: quality of food, nature of food, emotional state while eating food, and the act of eating itself. But probably the most important factor is the quantity of food consumed, especially if we overeat. So if you often experience indigestion, look first at how much you are eat, and how often. Ask “am I hungry when i eat?” Find out if you are overeating. Normally, if you overeat, you will feel heaviness and perhaps sleepiness after meals. You may also get a feeling of chilliness after eating, reaching for another layer of clothing as your body is not able to allocate sufficient resources to both fuel digestion and periphery circulation.
It is not so, that the proper quantity of food does not depend upon the nature of food articles. If the food article is heavy, only three fourth or half of the stomach capacity is to be filled up. Even in the case of light food articles excessive intake is not conducive to the maintenance of the power of digestion and metabolism. [ 7 ]
Ayurveda, based largely on subjective self-observation, and the observation of others, finds that foods can be usefully categorised in terms of their heaviness. Heavy foods (guru) take longer to digest and more easily create a sensation of heaviness compared to lighter (laghu) foods which digestion more quickly. The following list gives a rough idea of relative heaviness of foods in increasing order from lightest to heaviest:
Nuts & Seeds
Clearly, a meat based meal is heavier than a plant based meal. So some adjustment has to be made to accommodate for the relative heaviness of the meal you are eating and the quantity you eat. Again, the onus is on you to listen, to be tuning in while you eat, so that you don’t go past the point of satiation. The notion that we ought not go past half to three-quarters stomach capacity is a good starting point. I find that providing I sit still, don’t talk too much, and chew my food thoroughly, my first burp tends to reliably indicate that I have eaten sufficient quantity. However, if that was a plate of steamed vegetables, I would expect to get hungry sooner than if I had eaten a plate of chicken curry, rice, and flat-bread.
A side note worth mentioning is that if the nature of food you eat is not adapted to your prakriti, you will not find a balanced hunger pattern. For example, if you are a pitta type (hot, oily type) and you eat too many sour, salty, pungent, or oily foods, you will be feeding fire too much fuel and it will cause you to feel overly hungry. Knowing what tastes and other qualities of foods best suit your body type is a separate subject, and most often treated in general public books on ayurveda.
Taken in appropriate quantity, food certainly helps the individual in bringing about strength, complexion, happiness and longevity without disturbing the equilibrium of dhatus and doshas of the body. [ 8 ]
Charaka is methodical. After laying down the notions on how to gauge the right quantity in terms of meal by meal experience, he goes on to include the long term signs of correct quantity. Take a look at how your body weight is doing, the quality of your skin, your overall energy levels and physical stamina. If you are overeating or under-eating, the result will be apparent: you will lack vitality and most likely be either over or under weight.
It is all well and good laying this groundwork, but how does it help in practice. This is where ayurveda comes in handy, as a way of life, we are encouraged to get to know ourselves on a deeper more intimate level and learn to listen to our innate wisdom, our bodies generally know what is best for us, providing we supply them with a natural context of space, time, whole-foods and nature.
Unfortunately, society is not always moving in a conducive direction when it comes to health and well-being. Hear is a recent Sunday Times news article about portion sizes in the UK:
Ayurveda calls us towards our origins, highlights the ways in which modern life may or may not be so conducive to health and happiness, shows us ways of compensating for these challenges. First, notice! Start to watch yourself and you behavior with regards to food and eating. You can read a lot of stuff in a book, but unless you actually stop and observe your self, most of the dietary advice will not have a deep enough effect to help you in the long run.
A very simple tool you can try out is before during and after a meal, take a few moments to tune in to your stomach. Place your hands on you tummy. Close your eyes. Feel. Watch how you feel in your stomach. Identify how you feel: hungry, not-hungry, empty, sharp, dull, heavy, light, hot, cool, gnawing, blocked, etc. Do this at each main meal time and see how quickly you learn about your digestive capacity, your digestion, and the quantity of food that suits you best.