For a couple of decades now, as a faculty member for two of the best Ayurvedic Colleges in the states, I’ve told my students that I spent the first 20 years of my practice telling my patients to eat a big lunch.
This wasn’t just a side suggestion – it was one of the major recommendations I made on a regular basis! I was so serious about it that I even wrote a book on it, The 3-Season Diet. I included the same message in my first book, Body, Mind, and Sport.
This message has been somewhat of a passion – bordering obsession – of mine for many, many years.
After years of growing a successful practice and watching the life-changing benefits of eating a big lunch rather than a big dinner, I decided to do a study to see if I could measure the results of such a simple, yet profound, message.
The study results were published in winter of 2005 in the Light on Ayurveda Journal – now called the Ayurveda Journal of Health. (3)
Here is a quick preview of the benefits we found from eating a bigger lunch and not snacking throughout the day:
- Weight loss
- Better mood
- Better sleep
- More energy
- Less cravings
- Less fatigue after work
- Generally felt healthier
To learn the exact details of how we achieved these benefits, please read the study below.
Ayurvedic Weight Balancing: A Preliminary Study
This study measured the effects of specific lifestyle changes on obesity and a variety of common complaints plaguing an average American population. These complaints included weight gain, insomnia, anxiety, depression, fatigue, cravings, exhaustion after work, and a general sense of being unhealthy.
Eighteen subjects were evaluated during the two-month study. The study population was comprised of 18 randomly selected men and women. Some were on medication for diabetes, depression or insomnia.
The subjects were initially asked to eat three meals a day in a relaxed dining fashion, without snacks and with lunch as the biggest meal. As they became acclimated to three meals a day without snacking, they were asked to eat only two meals a day, omitting supper, but only if they were comfortable doing so. The average number of days per week the group skipped dinner was 3.5, with maximum benefits expected at 7 days per week. There were no specific recommendations with regard to exercise or diet other than the instructions regarding daily routine.
On average, the subjects lost 1.1 pounds per week, extrapolated to 57.2 pounds per year. Self-reported issues of insomnia, anxiety, depression, fatigue, cravings, exhaustion after work, and a general sense of well-being were all significantly improved.
Although the U.S. is one of the world’s wealthiest and superficially most advanced nations, its population is succumbing at epidemic rates to the debilitating effects of chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, thyroid disease, cancer, depression, anxiety and more.
Many people are in search of the most effective ways to lose weight and maintain optimal health, and to also feel a greater sense of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. From the Ayurvedic perspective, true healing, including healthy weight balance, can only come from complete integration of body, mind, and spirit.
Our modern lifestyle has rejected a much of the wisdom of our past. The lifestyle experienced by Americans around 100 years ago shared many characteristics with traditional Ayurvedic lifestyle recommendations:
- Lunch was the biggest meal of the day.
- People went to bed shortly after the sun set and were up before its rise.
- Internal oleation techniques with ghee were commonly used.
- People naturally ate foods that were in season, either because that was what was available, or because they were farmers.
- Herbal remedies were the medicines of choice and families relied on kitchen remedies for most ailments.
According to Ayurveda, dinacharya, or the practice of a daily routine, can be used as one of our most powerful medicines. One of the strengths of Ayurveda, the science of life, as a medical system, is the emphasis on lifestyle and the connection with the Self. Ayurveda recognizes that the cause of our woes is linked to our sense of separation from our true nature or divine Self. In the sacred texts of the Vedas, this separation is known as prajnaparadha, or the “mistake of the intellect.”
Prajnaparadha occurs when the mind has made the costly mistake of seeing itself as separate from its own consciousness. This is commonly caused by over-stimulation of the senses. The memory (smriti) of pure consciousness in every cell must be restored in order for the whole body to heal the mental, emotional and spiritual components that cause obesity in the first place.
When addressing a complex issue such as obesity, measures must be taken to evaluate and treat the entire body. Ayurveda does this by treating each of the five koshas, or sheaths, that make up the physical and subtle bodies:
- The annamaya kosha, or physical body, is addressed by the use of herbs, lifestyle and detoxification.
- The pranamaya kosha, or energetic body, is treated with pranayama (breathing exercises), yoga asana, Ayurvedic cleansing, and other more refined therapies.
- The manomaya kosha, or mental sheath, is treated by addressing the emotions using self-inquiry exercises. The senses are addressed by utilizing therapies including sound, taste, touch, sight and smell.
- The vijnanamaya kosha (sheath of higher intellectual knowledge) and the anandamaya kosha (body of ultimate bliss) are treated with a sattvic lifestyle, which includes giving, loving and caring for others, along with dharana and dhyana (concentration and meditation).
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Obesity: Classical Ayurvedic Review
The Charaka Saṃhitā describes two types of obesity. One is Sthaulya (Su.16.13); it is caused by the doshic accumulation and is treated with either vamana (emesis) or virechana (purgation) administered according both the type and strength of the accumulated dosha. The second is Atisthaulya (Su.21. 21-28), or over-obesity.
The Charaka Saṃhitā refers to obesity as being one of the eight despicables: over-tall, over-short, over-hairy, hairless, over-black, over-fair, over-obese and over-lean. The over-obese conditions has eight defects including: shortness of lifespan, hampered movement, difficulty in sexual intercourse, debility, foul smell, excessive sweating, too much hunger and excessive thirst. Over-obesity can be caused by over-saturation, intake of heavy, sweet, cold and fatty foods, indulgence in sleeping during the day, lack of mental work and genetic defect.
In obesity, there is an accumulation of meda dhatu, or fat, which causes obstruction and imbalance in each of the seven dhatus, or tissue types. The accumulation of meda also interferes with the normal movement in the body, including the movement of food and nutrition through the digestive system, which is closely connected to our agni, or digestive fire. Maintaining the balance of all three doshas and their seats within the digestive system is critical for weight management.
Increased exercise, mental activity, sexual activity (although not excessive) and proper diet and routine can be employed to balance the doshas. While eight factors are mentioned with regards to dieting (Vi. 1.21), there are three general principles that encompass all of those mentioned in the texts. These critical principles are now being brought to light in the form of Nobel Prize-winning Circadian Medicine science. They are: how, when, and what you eat.
- How you eat takes into consideration the place in which a person is eating, rules of eating, attitude of the person cooking and eating, and the quantity of the food.
- The concept of what you eat encompasses the nature of the food, its preparation, the season of harvest and season in which it is eaten, and food combinations.
- When you eat determines the time of day the meals are taken.
The dietary principles used as the basis for this study are outlined in detail in my book, The 3-Season Diet.
The focus of the study was to obtain information on the effectiveness of a weight loss regime based on these Ayurvedic principles. The study measured the benefits of modifying how, when, and what you eat. The study instructions gave the least amount of emphasis on what to eat, as this is the primary emphasis of most modern American fad diets; an emphasis that has repeatedly proved to be ineffective.
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The study was advertised as a “weight loss lifestyle study,” and anyone who was interested in following through with the eight-week program was accepted. There was no screening process eliminating people with medical issues other than the need to lose weight. Many in the group were on medications for serious conditions such as diabetes, depression, high blood pressure, asthma, hormone replacement therapy and more.
A total of five men and 13 women who ranged in age from 21-65 were enrolled in and completed the eight-week study. Participants received no financial compensation for completing the study. They participated in a written questionnaire and interview at the beginning and end of the study. They were given a set of instructions to follow with recommendations for daily routine. See appendix below for details.
Participants were asked to eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and supper, with supper preferably finished by 6pm. Lunch was asked to be the largest meal of the day, with breakfast and supper large enough to make it to lunch or bed respectively without hunger pangs. The goal was to be able to skip supper altogether, and be able to eat two meals a day without experiencing hunger or food cravings. If cravings arose or if they felt uncomfortable, they were given instructions to eat a light supper such as a soup or salad.
Most of the study participants were between 10-30 pounds overweight. The 18 people in the study lost a collective total of 143 pounds in the 130 person-weeks of the study (some participants were enrolled after the study had already begun). On average, the subjects lost 1.1 pounds per week. This is extrapolated to 57.2 pounds per year.
The following results were based a subjective questionnaire given at the beginning and end of the eight-week study. The group was asked to rate the severity of their ailment on a scale from 1-10, with 1 – 3 indicating a mild or no complaint, 4 – 7 indicating a moderate complaint, and 7 – 10 indicating a severe complaint. The results were deemed significant for only those who recorded a moderate to severe level of complaint on the questionnaire.
- 11 out of 12 subjects with anxiety noticed significant decrease in 19 days
- 16 out of 17 subjects with cravings noticed significant decrease in cravings in 15 days
- 16 out of 17 subjects with fatigue noticed significant decrease in fatigue in 14 days
- 12 out of 13 subjects with insomnia noticed significant decrease in insomnia in 15 days
- 9 out of 10 subjects with depression noticed significant decrease in depression in 16 days
- 11 out of 14 subjects who were overweight noticed significant weight loss in 15 days
- 17 out of 18 subjects who felt generally unhealthy felt healthier in 15 days
- 13 out of 14 subjects who came home from work tired and exhausted, came home less tired and exhausted in 12 days
*Please note that these results were with no changes or additions to medical or herbal supplements. The results were based solely on a simple and sustainable lifestyle change.
If the population were screened for healthy, non-medicated individuals, it is reasonable to presume the results would surely have been more pronounced. This study did, however, reflect accurate and predictable results with the average overweight population – who, unfortunately, suffer from a host of obesity-related conditions requiring medications.
Many of these drugs have side effects that include weight gain. It is, therefore, reasonable to assume that the results with the general population would be much better, particularly when they reached the ability to comfortably sustain the goal of just two good meals per day.
It should also be noted that many of the subjects who reported severe blood sugar disorders struggled to eat only 3 meals a day without experiencing severe cravings or side effects, particularly in the beginning of the study. Many were conditioned to eat every two hours, and changing this pattern represented a dramatic behavioral shift.
As the weeks went by, everyone in the group noticed their improved ability to eat a smaller dinner. By the end of the study, almost all the participants were able to eat nothing for dinner 2-3 days each week. This is a powerful indication that, without any pills, powders or medications, the group was able to stabilize blood sugar levels, burn fat as their primary fuel, and begin to enjoy a new-found stable source of longer-lasting energy. As energy and blood sugar levels naturally became more stable, anxiety, depression, fatigue, cravings and the quality of sleep also dramatically improved.
The goal of the study was to show that there is a healthy alternative to the ineffective American way of life. The average American is overweight with many complaining of fatigue, cravings, anxiety and depression. America is the fattest country in the world with the highest percentage of chronic disease. This study set out to prove that with a simple and sustainable change in lifestyle, chronic and life-threatening conditions could be eradicated without the use of drugs, medicine, surgery, or a ridged starvation diet.
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Appendix – Instructions
Natural Weight Balancing
BREAKFAST: Fruit. (If unable to sustain energy on just fruit, add small portions of toast, cereal or eggs.) Breakfast has to be large enough to get you to lunch without hunger pangs. Morning exercise before breakfast will help sustain energy through the morning.
LUNCH: Make it the largest meal of the day. For example: Rice, chicken, vegetables, salad, soup, dessert and herb tea. It should be a complete, large and satisfying meal. During this meal, you must relax and not watch TV, open mail, drive your car or talk on the phone. For the body to digest a large meal and provide energy, you must relax during the meal and take five to ten minutes of rest after the meal before going back into your day. If you get tired after a large meal, see optional section.
SUPPER: (Supplemental – before 6:00pm) To re-educate the body to burn fat as energy rather than craving sugar and breads, this is the most important time of the day. Most importantly, this process must be effortless. If you strain to not eat, the body’s emergency response will trigger cravings for more sugar (emergency fuel) and store the very fat we are trying to burn. So, progress from phases one to three only if it is effortless.
If you can comfortably complete meals as structured above, you may then move on to the 3 phases below:
PHASE 1: Eat soup, salad or fruit for supper. This will only be easy if the lunch meal is large, relaxed and satisfying.
PHASE 2: If phase one is easy. After 6pm, have only liquids. For example, fruit or vegetable juice, water or herb tea with honey.
PHASE 3: Only if steps one and two are established effortlessly should you attempt phase three – where supper is omitted. Drink 3-6 liters of water from lunch to breakfast the next morning. Herb tea with honey in the evening is OK. To offset hunger pangs drink eight full ounces at one time every hour or two from the lunch meal to bedtime. Phase three allows the body to fast from lunch to break-fast where the fast is broken and fat is forced to be burned for energy. Try to stay on phase two or three for four weeks or longer for best results. Or use phases 1, 2, 3, interchangeably.
VERY IMPORTANT: The kitchen closes at 6pm. It is extremely important that those light dinners not be consumed after that time, as the body is moving to a different period of activity, namely rest. Ideally, you’re moving to a liquid or no dinner, but at the very least, help control the late-night cravings with a large glass of water and even shift that bedtime a little earlier if you can.
By completing your last meal of the day at 6pm, you are truly fasting for 13 hours (until around 7am the following morning). You then break that 13-hour fast with “break-fast.” During that 13-hour fast, by definition, you will be burning fat and balancing your blood sugar, moods, and energy. As your body becomes more stable with this program, you will gracefully be able to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2 to Phase 3. Significant weight loss will happen in Phase 3, where the fast from lunch to breakfast is 17 hours; however you can expect to see weight loss in Phases 1 & 2.
If you’re unable to do Phase 1 comfortably, meaning you can’t survive with the soup/salad/fruit routine, you may have a blood sugar imbalance, in which case you need a more substantial meal.
This program is designed to utilize fat as energy and cut our unnatural cravings for sugar. In the beginning, it will be difficult to make this transition. Use phases 1-3 interchangeably until it becomes effortless. If lunch is big and there is no hunger in the evening, move to phase three. If evening hunger persists, do phase one or two. Soon, it will become easy to do phase two or three for weeks at a time and metabolize stored fat. Once the desired weight is established, then you can maintain that weight effortlessly with phase one or a light evening meal of your choice. Once in a while, you can enjoy a big dinner, just eat a light lunch and enjoy yourself. It is what you do every day that will make a difference.