It is important to allow food to digest and true hunger to return before taking another meal. Ayurveda teaches that taking food before true hunger returns leads to poor digestion. Using the analogy of a campfire, when wood is put onto the fire, at first it decreases the strength of the fire. Eventually, as the wood burns, the fire becomes stronger. At some time, it peaks. After that, it begins to die down, as there is not enough wood to sustain the fire. In the body, when there is not enough food to sustain the digestive fire, the fire calls out for more food. This is the appetite returning.
The body’s digestive fire never actually goes out. If there is not enough food available, it will begin to slowly burn the tissues of the body. The body keeps a short supply of glucose (sugar for the blood) in storage. When that is used up, the body begins to burn stored fat. Later it burns up muscle and other proteins, until there is not enough structure to sustain life. This is what occurs during starvation. It occurs to a lesser extent during structured fasting and any time the gap between meals is too long.
When food is taken too soon after a previous meal, when the fire has not had time to complete the digestion of the previous meal, the digestive fire becomes weaker and it becomes hard to properly digest either meal. The effect is much like overeating and kapha is increased and toxins are produced. There is heaviness, bloating and lethargy.
Each meal should be taken when the previous meal has been digested, the body feels light and the true appetite has returned. Many people equate ap- petite with a sensory desire for more food. But this is not always the same. People often eat for emotional reasons, out of boredom or just for entertainment. This is considered a misuse of the sense of taste and it compromises your health. It takes a while to learn the difference between the desire for pleasure through food and true appetite.
Waiting at least three hours between meals is a good general guideline. This includes snacks. But, three hours is not a magic number. The ideal amount of time between meals depends upon the constitution and the nature of any imbalances present. Those with a kapha nature or imbalance should wait much longer.
People with a kapha nature, having a naturally slower digestive system, benefit by taking only two meals each day. Meal times at 10:00 am and 6:00 pm work very well. This helps to keep kapha dosha from further increasing and returns it to normal. While to some this may not seem often enough, remember that with a kapha imbalance there are already feelings of heaviness and lethargy and the weight of the body is above normal. Individuals with a kapha nature have a naturally low fire in their digestive system. By taking only two modest meals per day, not only will body weight return to normal but a person with a kapha nature will feel lighter and their mind will be clearer.
People with a pitta nature benefit most by taking three good meals each day. This can easily allow for five hours between meals. Meals can be taken at 7:30 am, 12:30 pm and 6:00 pm. These meals should be substantial, as pitta has a strong natural fire that digests the foods. If the three meals are substantial, there will be no hunger until the next meal and snacking will be avoided. Still, care should be taken to make sure that you have only reached the 75% full limit. It does take more food for a person of pitta nature to reach this level than a person of kapha or vata nature. For a person of pitta nature, the largest meal should be the mid-day meal as this is the time when Ayurveda teaches that the digestive fire is the strongest.
For a person of vata nature, it is important to take food more often than for a person of pitta or kapha nature. Taking meals every three hours is essential. Hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is a common challenge for individuals with a vata nature or imbalance and, unfortunately, it is also more common for people with a vata nature or imbalance to skip meals or eat irregularly. The combination of hypoglycemic tendencies and a tendency to skip meals leads to low blood sugar and this produces greater anxiety, overwhelm and irritability.
Five meals per day is a good goal for a person with a vata constitution. However, these meals should not be very large. The strength of the digestive fire in a person with a vata nature or imbalance is not very strong and eating larger amounts of foods will lead to excessive gas and bloating. Thus, five small to moderate meals are most beneficial. A person who is trying to balance the vata dosha should take meals at 7:00 am, 10:00 am, 1:00 pm, 4:00 pm and 7:00 pm.
Excerpt from Healing Your Life, Lessons on the Path of Ayurveda, by Dr. Marc Halpern, Founder of the California College of Ayurveda. Available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble