What Is The Right Time For Food? How Many Meals A Day?

Article by Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ay) & Dr Manasa, B.A.M.S
‘A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety’ – Aesop

There is certainly a proper time to do everything and intake of food is no exemption. We need to follow proper timing for consuming food. Likewise the food patterns, the quantity and quality of food and the way we eat differ from season to season. In this article I will be presenting the concept of ‘Ahara Kala’ or ‘right time to take food, day wise and season wise’ as explained by Ayurvedic seers.

Acharya Charaka while quoting ahara (food or diet) emphasizes intake of food at the right time (Kala Bhoji) along with intake of compatible (conducive, hita ahara) food in right quantity (mita ahara) of food in order to keep up good health and avoid diseases.

Times of food intake

How many times one should consume food?
In Kannada (South Indian Language spoken by people of Karnataka State), there is a famous saying about the number of times one need to take food and its benefit –

‘Ondu Sala Tindavanu Yogi,
Eradu Sala Tindavanu Bhogi,
Muru Sala Tindavanu Rogi,
Nalku Sala Tindavnna Etkondu Hogi’

A person who eats once is a Yogi, i.e. a saint, monk or divine person.
A person who eats twice is a Bhogi i.e. a commoner, a person who lives according to available conditions with a little discipline.

A person who eats thrice is a Rogi i.e. a diseased, always a patient.
A person who eats four times or more is almost considered dead.
How good and practical one this ancient proverb is…….!!

Acharya Sushruta’s opinion

Acharya Sushruta takes a reasonable stand in this regard and permits consumption of food twice in a day. He tells that the food should be taken at two extremities of a day, i.e. once in the morning and once in the evening (night). No food should be consumed in between these two times.

One should consume the food when the below mentioned conditions prevail (when one observes and experiences the below mentioned conditions) –

  • Visrushta vin mutra – Stools (feces) and urine should have been voided properly
  • Vishada karane – When the senses are clear, i.e. in the presence of pleasantness of mind
  • Dehe cha su laghau – Presence of lightness of the body
  • Vishuddhe cha udgare – Presence of clear belching
  • Hrudi suvimale – Clarity and lightness in the region of heart, heart being devoid of blemishes (feel of goodness in the chest area)
  • Vate cha sarati – Proper movement of Vayu, Vayu being in a normal state
  • Anna shraddayaam – Presence of interest for intake of food
  • Kshut upagamane – In the presence of hunger
  • Kukshau cha shitile – The stomach should be empty and clear, light

The presence of the above mentioned conditions is essential and mandatory to consume food. Only when the above said conditions prevail, the body will happily receive the food, digest it properly, assimilate and utilize it properly and provides energy to the body and supports life. When one takes food in the absence of the above mentioned conditions, the food will not be digested; this leads to indigestion which is a major cause of many diseases.

The presence of all the above said conditions defines the proper ahara kala or right time to take food. When food is taken at proper time it is wholesome for health and life, supports the body and is equivalent to a life protecting medicine.

Food should be taken in the presence of Jeerna Ahara Lakshanas i.e. ‘features of proper digestion’
Food should be taken only when the previously taken food has been properly digested. Kshut or Hunger gets manifested only when the Rasa (digestive juices in circulation), Dosha and Mala (excreta, wastes) are properly digested (i.e. when the rasa has been properly distributed and utilized, doshas are properly settled down and when the malas are properly and timely excreted). The appearance of Hunger or Kshut is called ‘Anna Kala’ or proper time to take food.

Jeerna Ahara Lakshanas

Below mentioned are the signs (features) of proper digestion.

  • Udgara Shuddhi – Cleanliness of belching (no taste in belch)
  • Utsaha – Enthusiasm
  • Vega Utsarga – Proper evacuation of urges (like those of stools, urine, fart etc)
  • Laghuta – Lightness of the body
  • Kshut – Manifestation of hunger
  • Pipasa – Manifestation of thirst

The presence of the above said symptoms or features should be considered as ‘proper time for intake of food’.

Take food when hungry

The Pachaka Agni or digestive fire present in the belly will digest the food when it is in a balanced state and at the best of its strength. When the food is not provided at the right time and right quantity, the digestive fire digests doshas. In the absence of doshas, the agni digests the dhatus or tissues. This leads to failure of body support system. Ultimately in the absence of dhatus, the agni digests and destroys the prana or the vital life force. The life activities will come to a halt with this and the person will eventually face death.

So, hungry is a natural and inborn signal that the body needs food, and the fire needs the fuel. When one feels extremely hungry, he or she should consume food irrespective of time. Nothing has more priority in comparison to hunger, when it gets manifested.

You can eat even at midnight when you are hungry
Hunger is one of the urges which should not be suppressed. Generally it is a notion that one should not consume food at midnight. But if one feels extremely hungry at midnight, he or she has to consume food. Not eating food when one feels hungry is dangerous for life and health.

Time gap between meals

What should be the time gap between two anna kalas (between 2 servings)?
One should not consume food within 1 yama (3 hours) of consumption of food. If taken it leads to Rasodvega, i.e. indigestion and improperly digested food put into circulation which is dangerous for health and becomes life threatening. Similarly one should not fast (totally) for 2 yamas at a stretch (6 hours) since it leads to Bala Kshaya (loss of strength). This rule is more applicable for water and other liquids. This rule is not applicable for solid foods.

Food should not be consumed after the prescribed time
Food should not be consumed after the prescribed time (time meant for consuming food). Likewise, food should neither be taken in excess nor in less quantity.

Consumption of food before the feeling of lightness (which is one of the symptoms which indicate that the previously taken food has been digested) produces Mandagni (indigestion, sluggish metabolism) and related diseases or even death.

Long gaps should not be given between two meals (two servings of food). If one consumes food after long gap, the Jatharagni or digestive fire gets destroyed by the aggravated Vayu. This in turn produces difficulty in digesting food. There will be no interest to consume food.

Consuming food at day and night, their impact on health
We consume food at day and also at night. Very important is to watch out if the previously digested food is digested or not. We need to observe if the food taken in the morning is digested by evening. Similarly we need to check if the food taken on previous night has been digested or not on the following morning. This check should be done before taking the next serving of food.

Acharya Charaka tells that if food is consumed in the evening in spite of the morning food not being totally digested doesn’t cause much harm whereas the food taken on the next morning when the food taken during the previous night has not been digested will definitely have a bad impact on health.

What is the reason?
Read here – Day Food Vs Night Food – Impact On Health As Per Ayurveda

Variants of food intake time

Variants of ‘time of intake of food’ which cause health disturbances
The below mentioned variants with respect to ‘time of intake of food’ are dangerous for health –

Samashana (Sama Ashana) – Intake of wholesome and unwholesome food mixed together is called as Samashana.
Vishamashana (Vishama Ashana) – Intake of less or more food at irregular intervals, not maintaining time is called Vishamashana.
Adhyashana (Adhi Ashana) – Intake of food before the previously taken food has been digested is called Adhyashana.

All the above said three variants are said to produce death or dreadful diseases. Therefore they should be avoided. Food should be consumed at the right time and in right quantities if one is desirous of enjoying a disease free life and good health.

Quantity of food

Less food and more food, both are not beneficial for health
Too less food or too much food either is not conducive for health. The digestive fire or agni doesn’t get kindled or enhanced by taking less food or fasting. Similarly the fire is not enhanced by intake of more quantity of food. Fasting or absence of food in the gut extinguishes the existent fire. Similarly excess of fuel in the form of food extinguishes mild fire. Therefore food should be taken according to one’s capacity, following the rules and regulations of intake of food, in right and measured quantities.

Food intake and season

Food intake in various seasons
In seasons where the nights are lengthy and days are short, one should consume food only in the morning
In seasons where the days are lengthy and nights are short, one should consume the food indicated in first prahara at night and in the afternoon itself
In seasons where the day and nights are of the same length, food should be taken at the indicated time.

‘So long as you have food in your mouth, you have solved all questions for the time being’ – Franza Kafka

Kala v/s Ahara

Food In Relationship With Timing:

Time factor is the most important one which we should all respect in all aspects of our life. Time is a principle, a law, a yard-stick and denotes maturation and evolution. We need to keep pace with it because the time we lose cannot be recovered again.
Read – Wait A Moment Before Starting To Eat: A Healthy Eating Tip

You need to eat at proper time!!

Even in relationship with food, we have heard our elders tell that we should eat food at proper time and follow the same timing every day. When we grew up we carried over the same lessons to our children hoping that they would carry the legacy ahead to their children when they grow up. This has been a talk of every household throughout the entire length of evolution of mankind, food and etiquette of eating.
Read – Eating Etiquette: Healthy Eating Rules

But has ‘you need to eat at time’ become a casual, meaningless instruction, just said for namesake while the people who are instructing are themselves not following this principle? Yes, it is true most of the time. How many of us follow the same time of eating every day, every time? Hardly a few of us may follow due to stringent practice, but majority of us do not!!

In my clinical experience when I dig into the history of my patients, I have found that more than 75-80% people do not follow proper time of eating food. Balancing quality, quantity and timing of food has always been a challenge, especially in this era because of our stressful life events.

Ayurveda was the first health science to advocate ‘eating food at proper time’ keeping in view a balance of quality and quantity. The eating etiquette explained by Ayurveda are exemplary and when properly followed would help in maintaining optimum physical and mental health.
Read – 11 Ayurvedic Eating Tips For Good Health

Erratic timings of food – one of the main causes for many diseases and trigger for many more

I have observed that following erratic timing of food is the root source of many diseases. It also triggers many systemic and lifestyle disorders and worsens them, like diabetes, obesity, insomnia, hypertension, cholesterol related problems, peptic ulcers, indigestion, anorexia, inflammatory bowel diseases etc.

On the other hand, I have seen substantial improvement in the health conditions in those who followed the timing of food and corrected the timetable of dining table on my advice. Once you practice it for a month or so, you are in rhythm with it and your health will start coming to a state of equilibrium. Though it may not be a ultimate remedy, time-food balance would definitely help in bettering the health, would add as a supplement for medicines and interventions and improve quality and quantity of life.
Read – How Much Food To Eat Per Day As Per Ayurveda?

But what if one does not follow timing of food ?

These people need to be judicious on their priorities. Health is wealth. If health is maintained at its optimum best, anything can be earned or achieved in life. Therefore food is said to be one of the important supporting pillars of health in Ayurveda. If they neglect timing of food, they need to repent and come back to basics and follow time at one point or the other of their life, sooner or later!! There is no substitution for healthy rules!!
Read – Food – Definition, Importance As Per Ayurveda, Upanishad

Factors to consider setting right the circadian rhythm, the time-food graph!

Ayurveda states ‘Sarve api roaah mande agnau…’ (M.N.). It means ‘all diseases are caused due to imbalance of digestive fire’. Not following proper food timing is one of the contributory factors which lead to the disturbance of digestive fire.

Over a period of time the fire and digestive capacity becomes so sluggish that it meddles with all the activities of the body. It becomes the root cause for many diseases, which may be irreversible.

To keep the food-time clock tickling in favour of our health, one needs to take food at proper time giving due consideration to –

  • Quality of food
  • Quantity of food
  • Digestive capability (agni bala)
  • Body type determined at birth

Good, balanced and timely food automatically would keep the circadian rhythm of the body in a state of balance. Eventually all functions of the body will be in rhythm, apart from balance of mental and sensual health.
Read – Drinking Water before or After food? A Wrong Habit – Ayurveda Proof

Fine-tuning dinner timing – to setting right the circadian rhythm of time-food cycle

I most often advice my patients with gut troubles or any patient coming with chronic ailments to first correct their dinner timing and also the spacing between their dinner and breakfast.

I find so many patients in my clinical practice, especially women, who take early dinner, e.g. – at 8-8.30 pm. They attend to other activities and works reserved to be done during night and sleep by 11.30 pm – 12 am.

By this time they would have already experienced a mild bout of hunger. Some drink water or milk and sleep, liquid foods are dangerous, especially in a state when the hunger is already manifested. This is almost like pouring water over the fire. Liquid foods will further weaken the digestive fire and one’s capacity to digest foods when this is followed for longer periods of time.
Read – Healthy Night Regimen As Per Ayurveda – Ratricharya

Some people sleep immediately after the hunger manifests with a fear of having to eat something.

Few other people eat something, biscuits, snacks or whatever is available just before sleep. All these are threatening scenarios for health, these being untimely foods added by intake of liquid foods which would put off the digestive capacity and weaken the metabolic functions.

At morning, they wake up early in the morning, prepare breakfast for everyone, have a bath, conduct pooja i.e. worshipping for a lengthy duration and luxuriously have their breakfast at 9.30 am – 10 am or even later. Seeing deep into it, most of the people fast overnight for 12-14 hours. Just imagine?
Read – What Is The Right Time For Food? How Many Meals A Day? – Ayurveda

In 24 hours of the day, 14 hours are spent in fasting. Recently I got a woman patient aged 60 years who has been doing this since 35 years. Today she has so many health issues. She doesn’t accept that dys-rhythm of food-sleep-food cycle is contributory to this.

She tells that she has done this out of Dharma i.e. righteousness and she feels good doing that. I have counselled her, but at the end of the session her expressions said that she felt as if I am meddling with her routine life. But she needed remedy for all the problems which she is suffering from 20-25 years. Guess how?
Read – Importance Of Diet (Pathya) For Specific Diseases

In such patients, especially the few sincere species who understand what the physician tells and can volunteer to take measures which can improve their health, I have always asked them to correct the dinner-sleep spacing and dinner-morning awakening spacing. I have also asked them to have pre-breakfast, ignoring all their beliefs or myths related with food intake.

No God tells you that you need to worship me for 1-2 hours by harming self.

Aham BrahmAsmi’ – Respect the god in you first.

I should tell that most of my patients obliged to do so. Doing this for 1 month, would definitely adjust the circadian rhythm and patients have started feeling good. Even symptoms of diseases eased, including pain.
Read – 21 Foods That Are Incompatible With Milk

Food and stage of disease

Focusing on pathological states and stages of diseases while focusing on food and its timing

As we speak about the importance of timing of food, we can see conditions wherein the person is reasonably taking wholesome foods in accordance to time and yet not able to digest it, nor he is able to convert food he takes into packets of energy so as to maintain his ‘lifestyle activities’. Why?

Just like Prakriti i.e. basic physical constitution, wherein people of different physical constitution have different needs of food with different spacing and frequency, along with changes in quality and quantity, we also need to focus on vikriti i.e. the pathological stages occurring in the body.

Example –

In the Ajeerna Prakarana of Madhava Nidana, master Madhava quotes a reference from Sushruta Samhita Sutra Sthana Ch.46. and Charaka Vimana Sthana ch 2. The verse goes like this.

So, here we are. People also do not digest foods taken in proper quantity and in proper time when they consume below etiological factors.

  • Excessive intake of water
  • Untimely food intake and erratic food schedules
  • Withholding the natural urges of the body
  • Disturbance of sleep / wrong sleep practices
  • Mind causes like – jealousy, fear, anger, greed, pain (mental and physical), helplessness and aversion towards food

All these form obstacles for digestion of food in spite of following time. We also need to rule out these parameters interfering into the digestion of timely consumed food.

Acharya Charaka adds excessive worries, grief, uncomfortable bedding and night awakening (for long duration) as chief causes for indigestion of food taken in proper time and quantity.
Read – Effect of Stress, Anxiety on Stomach And Intestines: Remedies

In these people even the lightest to digest food is digested with difficulty or not digested.

Swapna viparyaya i.e. erratic sleep patterns, like sleeping during day time, keeping awakened late nights and prajaagara i.e. awakening throughout the night time, explains the magnitude of gastrointestinal ailments the night shift workers suffer from.
Read – What Is The Right Time To Sleep? How To Plan Your Sleep?

Erratic ways of food intake

  • Ati ashana – consumption of food in excess of one’s capacity
  • Anashana – Not taking food at time of hunger
  • Vishama ashana – taking food in large or less quantities, untimely food
  • Pramita ashana – having selective diet which leads to food imbalances (unbalanced food)
  • Adhyashana – consumption of food even before the previously taken food is digested

All these variables relate to ‘improper time of intake of food’ which seriously meddles with the gut health and overall health. These, when practised for longer periods would form the base for many systemic ailments.
Read – Food habits, Indigestion – Ashtanga Hrudayam Sutrasthana 8th Chapter

Other related points with respect to time and food

Food and kala

1. Timing of food in relation to seasonal changes and pathological stages of diseases

Kala i.e. time factor is one among the ahara vidhi vishesha ayatanani i.e. 8 factors pertaining to food intake. This kala is said to be of 2 types i.e.

  • avasthika kala – which is related to disease and its stages &
  • nityaga kala – which is related to the seasons.

Read – Health Benefits Of Vegetarian Diet – Ayurvedic Opinion

Nityaga kala and food intake – This explains that food given in normal conditions wherein the person is healthy should be in accordance to the changing seasons. This points out the fact that time of intake of food depends on seasonal changes and is different for people of different body types in the same given reason.

Example
In spring season, hunger may be less due to kapha predominance and person may eat less frequently.
In autumn season, person may have severe hunger and eat frequently owing to increase in pitta.
In monsoon, appetite is erratic owing to vata increase and eating timings may be variable, depending on the quantity of hunger, which is also weird.

When we plug in the constitution of individuals in these principles, a kapha person may feel less hunger and may eat less frequently in comparison to the pitta person in autumn. The dosha prakriti behaviour in various seasons and in various people in the same seasons is variable.
Read – Relationship Of Doshas With Seasons

Avasthika kala and food intake – This explains that the food given in abnormal conditions wherein the person is suffering from disease should be in accordance to the stage of disease. This changes from disease to disease and person to person.

Dwadasha Ashana Pravichara

2. Dwadasha Ashana Pravichara – 12 food related factors

Dwadasha Ashana Pravichara – Among the 12 factors needed to be considered while taking food, two factors are strictly related to time.

Eka Kalika – in order to increase the weak digestive fire, food shall be taken only once.

Dwi kalika – people having sama agni i.e. balanced digestive fire shall consume food twice in a day.

Thus, a healthy person is allowed to consume food twice daily. We need to remember that sama agni i.e. state of equilibrium of digestive fire is one of the indicators defining a swastha purusha i.e. healthy person.
Read – Various Methods of Ayurvedic Food Processing – Ahara Samskara

Atmanam Abhisamikshya

3. Atmanam Abhisamikshya – Knowing state of self – Need of physical and mental preparedness for consuming food, eat with love

One need to know about self, one’s gut behavior, one’s need of food and regarding adjusting the timing of food in relation to one’s own constitution and metabolic strength so as to maintain health in its optimum level.

Acharya Charaka tells that one should consume food after considering one’s own constitution etc. He should analyse if the food is conducive or harmful to him. When he knows himself and his gut, a person can prepare a proper timeline which links up his appetite and timing of food. Regularly practising it would bring the biological clock to perfect sync and rhythm.
Read – Bad Food Combinations And Solution As Per Ayurveda

This wisdom of master Charaka tells us the importance of physical and mental preparedness towards intake of food, to love food and to respect timing of food. Time transforms the food into good virtues and being an upasthambha i.e. supporting pillar of health would support and sustain life activities.

Click to Consult Dr Raghuram Y.S. MD (Ayu) – Email / Skype

9 thoughts on “What Is The Right Time For Food? How Many Meals A Day?”

  1. Dr. Hebbar, the article says not to fast more than 6 hours but also to eat only twice a day. However the first rule suggests to eat every 6 hours. Can you clarify?

    Reply
    • Hi, Thanks for pointing out. The rule of six hours is more applicable to water and liquid foods. It is not applicable for solid foods.

      Reply
  2. Sir,

    This article says best to eat only twice, so breakfast should not be eaten

    It is said above that eat when hungry, what If you feel hungry multiple times, do you eat multiple time, or only twice as this article says that if you eat more then twice you are dead.

    What about growing kids, they are hungry all the time, Also with them it is harder to keep 3 hour between meals.

    Reply
    • Hi, the rule of eating twice is only for adults. The idea is to allow the hunger to grow full. Then eat till just before satiating the hunger. This is like filling the tank with full petrol, allowing the vehicle to run till it empties completely and then again filling it full.

      For kids, they can eat as and when hungry.
      Even for some people with frequent hunger, it is best to eat multiple times a day. Or increase the meal size so that they can avoid eating multiple times

      Reply
  3. If -charak and susurut recommended two meals in a day, why modern ayurveda suggests three meals in a day? Is there any ayurvedic text which recommends three meals.

    Reply
  4. Dear Dr. Hebber, could you please clarify: what do you understand exactly by “liquid food”? As per ayurveda one should avoid eating lunch?

    Reply

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