According to Charaka Samhita, considered one of the oldest medical texts, a very important factor in human nutrition is the quantity of food we eat at any one meal. This may be stating the obvious but it is my impression 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. I always seem to be 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 a 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 than 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.
It’s important to listen to your body and get to know yourself. Attempt to recognize the signs your body is telling you. Learn the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. If you learn to differentiate the two feelings you can begin to gain control of your eating habits and the quantity of food you intake.