Confession: I was a grazer. I had been taught to believe that eating small, frequent meals would keep my metabolism stoked so I would lose weight and never feel hungry. It was a common belief promoted by health and nutrition media. And while it did help me lose weight and stay energized initially, long term that was not the case. To make matters worse, it seemed like grazing created endless food cravings, which made me anxious all the time.
Then I began studying Ayurveda, the 5,000 year old wisdom of life that hearkens from East India. Ayurveda teaches that we should allow enough time between meals for the food to be completely digested. If we do not, there is a tendency for undigested food from the previous meal to remain in the digestive tract. The undigested remains grow bacteria, which encourage excess gas and bloating. Excess bacteria leads to a build-up of toxins in the body, either in the blood or stored in fat cells. The toxic residue of poor digestion, called ama, can lead to a host of health conditions, including obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
People with different doshas take different lengths of time to move the food through the entire digestive system. Kaphas have slower metabolisms so they may take longer; Kaphas should allow 5-6 hours between meals and may be comfortable consuming only one meal per day. Typically, Kaphas can go a long time without feeling hungry. Because Kaphas enjoy the taste of food more than other doshas, their biggest challenge is overeating for pleasure or comfort. Pittas have the strongest metabolism of the three doshas and generally have strong appetites. They can get quite irritable when they miss a meal, but they should have no trouble waiting at least 3-4 hours between meals. Lastly, Vatas have variable appetites and tend to eat lighter meals on a more frequent basis, if at all. They can often forget to eat because food is typically not very important to them. When Vatas do eat, however, it seems they can eat a lot without gaining weight due to a fast metabolism. Vatas should strive to create an eating routine that allows them to go at least 3 hours between meals.
Why is it dangerous to eat between meals?
When you eat every 2-3 hours, your body becomes dependent on a constant supply of food. “The body will lose its built-in ability to tolerate missing a meal, and the blood sugar will crash and often crash hard,” so says ayurvedic practitioner Dr. John Doulliard of LifeSpa.1 Typically, once the body has used the quick energy from glucose and carbohydrates, it converts stored fat into glucose; fat is the most stable form of energy. Therefore, when we go longer between meals, we are actually using our fat stores (translated “losing weight”). Since our energy is stable, we tend to have fewer challenges with anxiety, depression and even sleep disorders.
Ayurvedic practitioners aren’t the only ones saying that frequent snacking is bad for you. In 2002, the New York Academy of Sciences published a report stating that all-day grazing can put you at risk for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke. The risk increases when insulin spikes after eating foods that have high glycemic values.2 “If you eat only three meals a day, (even high-glycemic ones), your insulin levels have time to even out,” says Victor Zammit, head of cell biochemistry at Hannah Research Institute in Ayr, Scotland. Conversely, if you eat high glycemic foods between meals, your insulin levels stay dangerously high.2
While having the occasional light snack when you are legitimately hungry is alright, most people tend to make poor food choices when they eat on the run. Even if you choose wisely, however, nibbling throughout the day will eventually overtax your digestive system and prevent it from operating at its optimum level.
Transitioning to a Healthier Eating Pattern
In order to stave off degenerative diseases, digestive disorders and emotional imbalances, try eating only two or three meals per day with no snacks in between. If you find it hard at first, try these tips to make the transition easier.
- Drink lots of water between each meal.
- When you eat: relax – dine and fully enjoy the meal before you.
- Start with four meals a day and work down to three.
- Make each meal count and try to make lunch the main meal.
- Avoid late night meals.
- Eat whole foods rather than processed foods.
The sole purpose of this article is to provide information about the tradition of Ayurveda. This information is not intended for use in the diagnosis, treatment, cure or prevention of any disease. If you have an acute or chronic health concern, please consult a trained health professional who can fully assess your needs and address them effectively. If you are seeking the advice of a trained ayurvedic expert, call or email Karen Callahan at firstname.lastname@example.org.