By Samer Elkassem
Obesity has become a worldwide epidemic, especially in affluent and developed societies. Despite intense social pressures to have an ideal physique, rates of obesity continue to increase at alarming rates. The health impact of obesity has been staggering, as it is associated with chronic and life-threatening diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, arthritis, and cancers.
Radical bariatric surgical procedures have become one of the most effective methods in reducing weight in morbidly obese patients. These surgeries dramatically reduce the capacity of the stomach and impact satiety. However, these surgeries have many risks and carry long-term health consequences as well. No optimal method of prevention has been formulated and adopted to address this growing problem.
The wisdom of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him) and his approach to eating and satiety can fill volumes of books. One of his narrations sums up the challenge of eating and satiety that can have a profound impact on individuals, communities and whole societies.
It has been narrated that the Prophet ﷺ said, “No man fills a container worse than his stomach. A few morsels that keep his back upright are sufficient for him. If he has to, then he should keep one-third for food, one-third for drink and one-third for his breathing.” (At-Tirmidhi)
This single narration defines the “eating” problem, especially as it relates to an intense struggle with one’s desires, advocates prevention, and provides practical advice.
The first portion of the hadith (narration) warns of the dangers of filling one’s stomach. Not only will there be health consequences, but an impact on our iman (faith). Eating to satiety is the tendency of the nafs (spirit), which ultimately commands to harm. There are indeed strong hunger impulses and satiety hormones that are closely related to the capacity of the stomach and one’s need for nutrition. The architecture and orientation of muscle fibers allows distention of the stomach, thus allowing one to over-consume, prior to the sensation of satiety. If we rely on our body’s feedback to stop eating, we will always eat in excess. In essence, the stomach can be seen as a trap.
Every time one eats, the body has to respond to the meal intake, not only by absorbing nutrients, proteins and carbohydrates, but by storing anything that is in excess as fat. Unfortunately, excess fat in our bodies results in many disorders, such as insulin resistance, chronic inflammation and atheriosclerosis.
In his book on “Breaking the two desires”, Imam Al-Ghazaly claims that happiness can be achieved when one struggles for control over his nafs and desires, and misery results when one is controlled by their desires. Once one is aware that consuming food is inherently a struggle between the nafs and the soul, we may start to appreciate the magnitude of the problem.
In the second portion of the hadith, the Prophet ﷺ teaches us about what our bodies really need. Very little is actually required to keep us up and running. As fasting teaches us, we can eat a third or less of what we typically eat and be fully productive. This concept has been advocated in the form of caloric restriction and intermittent fasting in recent medical literature. This was the Prophet’s ﷺ practice through out his prophethood; he fasted frequently and every week, and never ate to satiety.
The third part of his hadith gives us practical advice. While it is implied that one should ideally not fill one’s stomach, there is still understanding for our weakness, especially with the matter of food and satiety. He advises us to divide our capacity in three: a third for food, a third for fluids, and a third for air. This strategy encourages us to plan our meals, to prepare healthy foods without waste, and always be conscious of how much we put in our stomachs.
He ﷺ has encouraged us to make less while preparing foods:
“The food of two persons suffices for three persons, and the food of three persons suffices for four persons.” (Al-Bukhari)
In these few prophetic words, the Prophet ﷺ teaches us the principle of prevention and thoughtful restriction, to be conscious of our eating habits, and to prepare and eat our foods with taqwa (consciousness) and responsibility. He always looked for blessing in his food and praised Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) for what he was given. Hopefully, Muslims can follow his prophetic method and expect to live healthier lives, free from excess weight and diseases, and gaining hasanat (rewards) for their actions.
Allah (swt) knows best.