Breakfast, lunch & dinner?

How many meals should one have every day for a healthy & optimum life? Before we answer that question, we must understand how is it that we have reached the current model of 3 meals a day & explore what is likely to happen in the future

Our current model of 3 main meals a day arose as a consequence of the industrial revolution. As human beings transitioned from being farm workers to factory workers in the early 1800s in Europe, the factory day of 12 hours (usually 6am to 6pm) became the primary activity around which people crafted their day. Accordingly, the first meal - Breakfast - was in the morning before entering the factory at 6am. The second meal was in the middle of the factory day when workers got a break; consequently it was the smallest meal of the day. The last meal - the biggest one of the day - was after returning from the factory. This broad pattern has held more or less steady for the 200+ years and has spread all across the world along with the spread of the industrial economy

But this was not always the case. In the 75,000 years preceding the industrial revolution when man was primarily a farmer, the pattern of daily eating was different. Except for short, intense periods of sowing & harvesting, the daily labour of farmers did not exceed 6 hours. The working day would usually start at dawn and finish by midday. Accordingly, the pattern of daily food consumption was different. A pre-dawn meal would provide people with the energy to work in the fields. The biggest meal would be at midday when they returned from hard physical labour in the fields (interestingly, this meal was referred to as Dinner in England for a very long time). Followed by a light repast at sundown. Incidentally, in tropical & sub-tropical regions across the world, the afternoon hours - between the big meal at midday & a light one at sundown - was siesta time; a pattern visible in many countries even today, in spite of the widespread adoption of the industrial model

One of the profound consequences of this change from the agricultural age to the industrial age was that our eating, for the first time, became gradually divorced from the movement of the sun and the progression of the day. In farming communities, the day was determined by the movement of the sun. In communities locked up inside factories and working to the tyranny of a clock, the outside progression of the day had no implication at all. Eventually this led man to completely lose the connection between sunlight and daily living

But this is not all

We human beings (Homo Sapiens, to be more exact), in the first 225,000 years of our existence, were neither farmers nor industrial workers. We were hunter-gatherers. As gatherers, we ate lightly on fruits, berries and nuts almost throughout the day as we wandered in small bands in search of big prey to hunt. When we were successful in our hunt, we had a big meal; but given the difficulties of hunting, that happened once every few days & was never a daily phenomenon. This leads us to a startling point. For most of man's existence (225,000 years of 300,000 years), we have not had daily meals! The phenomenon of predictable daily meals is a relatively recent one (last 75,000 years) for the human race

All of which means that man's evolutionary food instincts are primarily geared towards:

  • regular consumption of small light foods with the occasional big meal
  • foods consumed in concert with sunlight, the progression of the day and the progression of the seasons

Now lets get back to the present & attempt a quick gaze at the future

At this point, the world is gradually shifting from the industrial age to (what I would call) the Intelligence Age. Almost all of the 'work' in the coming era will be done by highly intelligent machines powered by extraordinary advances in AI. In such a scenario, human beings will be faced with a completely new prospect that we have never faced before. We will not have to make any human effort to be able to live in safety & comfort!

Any assessment of how our daily food consumption patterns will evolve in the future will necessarily have to factor in this extraordinary reality. If we need to do neither farming nor production (including white collar work that is an adjunct to production), on what basis will we construct our day? The answer to this question will have a big implication on how our food habits evolve

Why is all this discussion so far, relevant in deciding how many meals I should have today?

Because the best answer to the question of what should be the ideal pattern of our daily eating is this:

The ideal pattern of daily eating should be the one which -

  • least contradicts our evolutionary past
  • and, is most adaptable to the future world we can see emerging before us

Food for thought :)