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Eating Well

ImageTaking the Prophet's guidance about filling one's stomach one-third with food, one-third with water, and one-third with air can help us a long way toward getting back into balance

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MyPyramid.gov lets you create your own personalized food pyramid.

One of the famous narrations from the Holy Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny) about eating says, "Fill one-third of your stomach with food, one-third with water, and one-third with air." Also, it is recorded in Lantern of the Path that Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him) said, "There is nothing more harmful to the believer's heart than having too much food, for it brings about two things: hardness of heart and arousal of desires. Hunger is a condiment for believers, nourishment for the spirit, food for the heart, and health for the body. The Holy Prophet said, 'The son of Adam fills no worse vessel than his belly.'"

Based on these narrations, as well as what is known from the medical sciences, overeating is very harmful to one's health, not only physically but emotionally and spiritually as well. Yet in the Western world, and even increasingly in the East, overeating, obesity, and numerous health problems associated with these habits and conditions are becoming serious problems. As we enter the winter season, people tend to eat more than in summer, so it is a good time to think about how we eat.

In the 1800s, Americans on average ate more calories per day than they do now, but they also burned more calories because they were generally more physically active than Americans today. In the 1970s, Americans ate on average 500 fewer calories per day than they do today. Research suggests that a typical American diet averages 2700 calories per day. When people regularly eat more calories than they need, they gain weight. So how many calories should we be eating?

Unfortunately, the answer is not so simple. In general, men need more calories than women due to differences in their anatomy. Also, younger people, especially those still growing, generally need more calories than older people. Gender differences in caloric needs for children are less pronounced than for adults. Scientists suggest that a minimum baseline that does not take into account differences in age, gender, or activity level can be found by taking your current weight times ten as your base metabolic rate, or BMR. Thus, if you weigh 150 pounds, you should probably eat at least 1500 calories per day, plus a variable amount depending on age, gender, and activity to maintain your weight.

However, many, if not most, Americans are now eating more calories than they need. Even a slight difference of 100 calories per day means gradual weight gain. To lose weight, any consistent pattern of taking in fewer calories than your body uses will eventually lead to results. As a rule of thumb, 3,500 calories is equal to one pound. For example, if you eat 250 calories per day fewer than your maintenance rate requires and exercise enough to burn an additional 250 calories each day, you will lose approximately one pound per week because you are burning an extra 500 calories per day for 3500 total in one week.

Most people do not intentionally overeat, but at the same time, they are not counting calories because they find it too impractical a practice to keep up regularly. The problem seems to be with the overabundance of food and basic human psychology about eating what is before us. We eat more now than we did in the 1970s simply because it is easier to get and prepare food; we are surrounded by it more than ever before, and so we are easily tempted. Furthermore, portion sizes in restaurants, in packaged meals, and what we cook at home have grown drastically. What most people think of as a kid's meal today was a full adult meal in the previous generation. Perhaps the number one thing we can do to get our eating back under control is to readjust our portion sizes back to what they were in the past.

The US Centers for Disease Control found that people eat more when they are confronted with larger portion sizes. Even though information is available about appropriate portion sizes on packaging, people generally underestimate the amount they are eating. Most American restaurant meals are actually two to four times what we should be eating. If we eat out, doctors recommend that we portion it out before we take a bite – either into take-home containers or by sharing a single entrée with dinner companions. At home, don't put serving dishes on the table. Instead, dish up appropriate portions on plates and put the rest away for another meal. Between meals, eat fruit and vegetables when hungry.

According to the government's revised food pyramid, a balanced diet should include 2-3 servings of vegetables, 1-2 servings of fruit, 3-3.5 servings of grain (at least half should be whole grain), about three servings of dairy/milk, about five servings of protein (like meat and beans), and about 5-6 teaspoons of oils (but most people already get enough in the foods they eat, like nuts, fish, and dressing). So how big is each of these servings? Try the following as guidelines:

  • Woman's fist or baseball: A serving of vegetables or fruit is about the size of your fist. Leafy vegetables may take up twice as much room.
  • A rounded handful: This is a good measure for a snack or grain serving, such as chips, pasta, or rice.
  • Deck of cards: A serving of meat, fish, or poultry should fit in the palm of your hand. (Don't count your fingers.)
  • Golf ball or large egg: One quarter cup serving of dried fruit or nuts
  • Tennis ball: About one half cup serving of ice cream
  • Computer mouse: About the size of a small baked potato serving
  • Compact disc: About the size of one serving of pancake or waffle
  • Thumb tip: About one teaspoon of peanut butter or other oil serving
  • Six dice: A serving of cheese
  • Check book: A serving of fish

We have many very important reasons to eat well. We have family depending on us to be in good health as much as possible, we want to feel well, and we also need to avoid the spiritual ills associated with overeating. Taking the Prophet's guidance about filling one's stomach one-third with food, one-third with water, and one-third with air can help us a long way toward getting back into balance, as can making ourselves think about portion size whenever we eat. Many studies have reported that eating slower also helps people avoid overeating, because they have eaten less by the time the feeling of satisfaction reaches one's senses. Eating quickly can cause one to eat beyond one's needs before the feeling of satisfaction has a chance to kick in. People who have a tendency to eat too little should also keep these guidelines in mind to make sure they are eating enough.

May Allah grant us all good mental, spiritual, and physical health!

About Masooma Beatty

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  • Hj

    Thanks for this great piece Sister Masooma, recent studies have shown that this generation of American children may be the first that doesn’t outlive their parents due to unhealthy life styles.

    As a community, we should work either everyone, regardless of race or religion to combat obesity. It can be a unifying cause !

    Thanks again Sis.

  • servant786

    SPOT ON MA, sister MAsooma for an article which affects us all. I agree with Hj, that we should watch what, how much and when we eat. The irony is that we are in an era of extremes , where some have too little to consume, whilst others have consumed too much and want to burn it off by hitting the gym. How much more inequality can the distribution of wealth show? It’s time, we controlled our desires, and the secret to being healthy surely starts with this very trait in humans.