Before you read this section, pause for a moment to think over the eating habits of your family or friends and their opinion on the subject of when to eat. You’ll probably remember such phrases as these: Eat when you’re hungry, that’s my motto: Three meals a day for me; One good meal at night, that’s all I need; I don’t feel good unless I have a big breakfast plenty of bacon and eggs; I simply can’t sleep if I’m hungry.
So you come to the conclusion that the question of meals is a matter of individual preference, based on personal experience and somewhat influenced by the other habits of daily living. You probably have a sneaking suspicion, too, that to eat when you’re hungry is the best rule to follow. You are partially right in your first surmise, but only partially. As eating is a natural function absolutely necessary for life you should not regulate it to suit the man-made functions or occupation but suit the latter to the former. In your second surmise, you would be entirely correct, provided it was possible for an adult to know when he is really hungry. Unfortunately this is not the case with civilized man.
In the preceding section, you will recall that we hinted that appetite and hunger are very different phenomena and should not be confused. Appetite, we learned, is a purely psychological phenomenon as far as its origin is concerned. It is a pleasurable sensation arising from the. memory, sight, taste or smell of food which cause the flow of “appetite juices”.
Hunger, on the other hand, is a physical or physiological phenomenon that has nothing to do with appetite. It is a disagreeable sensation arising from the contractions of the stomach muscles. As the stomach becomes empty and this somewhat contradicts the old idea that the stomach needs a rest the muscular walls contract from ten to twenty five times. Then it is quiet for a while from about ten minutes to one hour in a child, and from one to three hours in an adult. Following this quiet period, the contractions start up again. The cycle of contractions and quiet periods is repeated with increasingly vigorous contractions, as the length of time without taking food becomes longer and longer.
Vigorous hunger contractions, are associated with a disagreeable and even painful sensation in the region of the stomach. The contractions are so vigorous in the infant that they frequently wake the child and cause it to cry, as many a fond father can testify. In the adult, however, they are weaker and less persistent. Even after several hours have elapsed since the last meal, they may not be recognized as such. However, they are causing serious trouble in the form of what a famous physiologist, A. J. Carlson, calls the “accessory phenomena of hunger”, that is, weakness, fatigue, irritability, inability to concentrate, or disinclination to work steadily.
These symptoms can only be relieved by one thing, not rest, but food. Ask any wife what restores her husband to his cheerful self when he comes home tired and irritable after a day’s work. Without hesitation she would reply Food. Would she suggest that he rest a little while before eating? No, indeed! She’d rather go without a permanent than do that.
Now there is another curious fact about hunger which you have probably already guessed. It does not depend upon the supply of nutrition in the blood stream. We shall see in a later chapter that after the food mass passes from the stomach where only a small part was digested it is further digested in the intestines and then absorbed. This takes a long time, and since the hunger contractions begin with the emptying of the stomach, sometimes before the digested food is absorbed, hunger or the symptoms of hunger, does not necessarily mean that the body is crying out for food. This is important for it shows that it is not necessary in fact, it may prove unhealthful to eat a full meal every time you eat or to adhere to the old rule of three meals a day.
The three-meals-a-day rule, so convenient for the modern factory system, is undoubtedly a heritage from our pioneer forefathers with whom it was a question of saving time, energy and food itself, and quite without physiological foundation. Even if such a rule has scientific foundation and many eminent authorities believe that it has it would be absurd to compare our-selves with our ancestors. The noise, dirt, bustle and other over refinements of our modern life would kill them off as quickly as the Indians, rustic cabins without telephone and plumbing and bitter cold would kill us.
Seriously considering, then, the various aspects of hunger, we would like to suggest, that instead of eating only three times a day, you eat five or even six times. We honestly believe that you will feel much better since by doing so you avoid the headaches, fatigue, irritability and all the other phenomena which torture your mind and body when your stomach is empty.
But don’t misunderstand us. We don’t want you to become a nibbler. Constant nibbling is even worse than eating only one meal a day. You’re bound to either undereat or to overeat, and in any case, it’s more than probable that you won’t get a balanced diet. We aren’t rabbits, so our nibbling doesn’t consist of nibbling carrots and lettuce that are full of vitamins and minerals and other nutritive elements; it usually means candy and cookies and other foods rich in carbohydrates that spoil our appetites for other foods and certainly aren’t balanced in themselves.
On the other hand, we don’t mean that you should sit down to five formally served meals. That would be impossible for the average person and usually would signify overeating.
What we do mean is that you should take a snack between meals at least between luncheon and dinner, for there is usually a longer time between them than between breakfast and luncheon, and besides, you’re not quite as fresh as you are in the morning and before you retire.
These snacks should be nutritious, easy to digest and not likely to spoil your appetite for your principal meals. A glass of milk, a cup of soup or a piece of fruit is good. If you feel more fatigued than usual, eat a piece of chocolate, or better still a piece of candy made of dextrose (corn sugar), as it is quickly digested and assimilated and will give you “quick energy”.
Of course, whether speaking of the principal meals or the snacks, the rules we laid down in our discussion of how to eat, hold true. Pleasant surroundings, proper mastication and all the other laws of good eating must be observed.
We trust that the reader realizes that all we have said on the subject of eating pertains principally to the persons who are enjoying average health. Some of them apply to the sick, as well, but not all. A sick person, naturally, needs pleasant surroundings, appetizing dishes and the other things we talked about in the philosophy of eating. But an invalid, a convalescent or one in the throes of a disease requires a special diet. He also may need nutrition as often as every half hour. Generally speaking his meals should be light, nutritious in quality and small in quantity, so as not to impose a too great burden at one time on the weakened digestive apparatus.
But in its essentials our message is the same to the vigorously healthy, the middling healthy and the sick: eat a diet balanced according to your needs, eat food that you enjoy, eat in pleasant surroundings, eat often enough and keep your digestive tract and your bowels in good order. Then it will be yours to keep your good health or improve your not-so-good health.