Let me begin by saying that the question of how many meals we should eat in a day is one of obscene luxury.
The very concept of having enough food available that meals have become a choice, not a necessity, would have been unfathomable to our great grandparents. While the human metabolism has spent millennia evolving to survive under the threat of constant food scarcity, the last 60 years in the West have seen high tech food become easily available in large volumes at low prices at all times.
We knew that food was officially abundant the day that having a high metabolism came into style. To our ancestors, a fast metabolism was a curse that would lower chances of survival, and those who thrived had lower metabolisms and used the least amount of energy to obtain food.
Today, the importance of revving up our metabolisms and exercise regimes is screamed at us daily from magazine covers and health books. At least for the majority of us living in the West, we have conquered the main threat to our survival only to create a whole new problem: our lifestyle has changed so rapidly that our diet is no longer relevant.
Though it’s hard to deny the advantages of having enough to eat, the downside is the astronomical rise in adult obesity and type 2 diabetes in the last 30 years. This is why the question of how many meals we should eat in a day is also one of supreme importance.
So is it three meals a day, or six?
As an Ayurvedic Consultant, I get this question a lot. First, it’s important to note that mealtime tradition has historically been dictated by climate, culture, lack and necessity.
The ancient Greeks believed in eating just one meal a day, which made sense in the absence of refrigeration. The ancient Ayurvedic text the Charaka Samhita outlined a two-meal system for farming folk, because the morning hours were set aside for working the fields, and the first meal wasn’t taken until noon when it became too hot to work.
The more contemporary and familiar three-meal system developed first in Europe, then America, with the increase of wealth and food availability, and was secured by the industrial revolution and the birth of the nine to five workday. Sometime in the last 20 years, the six small meals a day system that promoted weight loss through keeping your body out of starvation mode became popular.
If all of this should tell you anything, it’s that there is no one answer to this question that fits all people. Instead of jumping on the latest bandwagon, Ayurveda suggests that you ask yourself the following three questions when deciding how often to eat:
Are you hungry?
Rule number one: eat with hunger!
Hunger is your body’s way of telling you that you are ready to digest food. If you’re not hungry and eat because it’s time, there’s a good chance your body won’t properly absorb nutrients or process the food, leaving you with undigested food matter in your digestive tract that can ferment and be absorbed into your tissues via the gut lining as toxins.
Do you have an active lifestyle?
If you have a physically demanding job and enjoy daily vigorous exercise on top of that, your body can most likely handle the glucose infusion of a good square meal three times a day.
Your metabolism has likely adapted both to the demand of your body and the availability of food, and your body will be happy to turn that food into energy knowing that another square meal is soon on the way.
Remember that Ayurveda recommends making lunch the main meal of the day, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
Do you have a sedentary lifestyle?
Let’s face it, not all of us can be out working the fields, so if you’re lucky enough to have an awesome job at Google but spend the majority of your time in an office chair or car seat, the six small meals a day plan may be for you.
Your pancreas may not be able to handle sustained large glucose injections, but frequent small meals consisting mostly of fruits and vegetables will keep you fueled without adding to the unnecessary fat storage.
However, make sure you are getting regular exercise to balance your day job!
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