The general rule, then, is, that three hours be given to the stomach for labor, and two for rest; and in obedience to this, live hours, at least, ought to elapse between every two regular meals. In cases where exercise produces a flow of perspiration, more food is needed to supply the loss; and strong laboring men may safely eat as often as they feel the want of food. So, young and healthy children, who gambol and exercise much, and whose bodies grow fast, may have a more frequent supply of food. But, as a general rule, meals should be five hours apart, and eating between meals avoided. There is nothing more unsafe and wearing to the constitution than a habit of eating at any time merely to gratify the palate. When a tempting article is presented, every person should exercise sufficient self-denial to wait till the proper time for eating arrives. Children, as well as grown persons, are often injured by eating between their regular meals, thus weakening the stomach by not affording it any time for rest.
As a general rule, the quantity of food actually needed by the body depends on the amount of muscular exercise taken. A laboring man in the open fields probably throws off from his skin and lungs a much larger amount than a person of sedentary pursuits. In consequence of this, he demands a greater amount of food and drink.
Those persons who keep their bodies in a state of health by sufficient exercise can always be guided by the calls of hunger. They can eat when they feel hungry, and stop when hunger ceases; and thus they will calculate exactly right. But the difficulty is, that a large part of the community, especially women, are so inactive in their habits that they seldom feel the calls of hunger. They habitually eat, merely to gratify the palate. This produces such a state of the system that they lose the guide which Nature has provided. They are not called to eat by hunger, nor admonished, by its cessation, when to stop. In consequence of this, such persons eat what pleases the palate, till they feel no more inclination for the article. It is probable that three-fourths of the women in the wealthier circles sit down to each meal without any feeling of hunger, and eat merely on account of the gratification thus afforded them. Such persons find their appetite to depend almost solely upon the kind of food on the table. This is not the case with those who take the exercise which Nature demands. They approach their meals in such a state that almost any kind of food is acceptable.
Persons who have a strong constitution, and take much exercise, may eat almost any thing with apparent impunity; but young children who are forming their constitutions, and persons who are delicate and who take but little exercise, are very dependent for health on a proper selection of food.
It is found that there are some kinds of food which afford nutriment to the blood, and do not produce any other effect on the system. There are other kinds which are not only nourishing, but stimulating, so that they quicken the functions of the organs on which they operate. The condiments used in cookery, such as pepper, mustard, and spices, are of this nature. There are certain states of the system when these stimulants may be beneficial; such cases can only be pointed out by medical men.
Persons in perfect health, and especially young children, never receive any benefit from such kind of food; and just in proportion as condiments operate to quicken the labors of the internal organs, they tend to wear down their powers. A person who thus keeps the body working under an unnatural excitement lives faster than Nature designed, and the constitution is worn out just so much the sooner. A woman, therefore, should provide dishes for her family which are free from these stimulating condiments.
In regard to articles which are the most easily digested, only general rules can be given. Tender meats are digested more readily than those which are tough, or than many kinds of vegetable food. The farinaceous articles, such as rice, flour, corn, potatoes, and the like, are the most nutritious, and most easily digested. The popular notion, that meat is more nourishing than bread, is a great mistake. Good bread contains more nourishment than butcher's meat. The meat is more stimulating, and for this reason is more readily digested.
A perfectly healthy stomach can digest almost any healthful food; but when the digestive powers are weak, every stomach has its peculiarities, and what is good for one is hurtful to another. In such cases, experiment alone can decide which are the most digestible articles of food. A person whose food troubles him must deduct one article after another, till he learns by experience which is the best for digestion. Much evil has been done by assuming that the powers of one stomach are to be made the rule in regulating every other.
The most unhealthful kinds of food are those which are made so by bad cooking; such as sour and heavy bread, cakes, pie-crust, and other dishes consisting of fat mixed and cooked with flour. Rancid butter and high-seasoned food are equally unwholesome. The fewer mixtures there are in cooking, the more healthful is the food likely to be.
There is one caution as to the mode of eating which seems peculiarly needful to Americans. It is indispensable to good digestion that food be well chewed and taken slowly. It needs to be thoroughly chewed and mixed with saliva, in order to prepare it for the action of the gastric juice, which, by the peristaltic motion, will be thus brought into contact with every one of the minute portions. It has been found that a solid lump of food requires much more time and labor of the stomach for digestion than divided substances.
It has also been found that as each bolus, or mouthful, enters the stomach, the latter closes, until the portion received has had some time to move around and combine with the gastric juice, and that the orifice of the stomach resists the entrance of any more till this is accomplished. But, if the eater persists in swallowing fast, the stomach yields; the food is then poured in more rapidly than the organ can perform its duty of preparative digestion, and evil results are sooner or later developed. This exhibits the folly of those hasty meals so common to travelers and to men of business, and shows why children should be taught to eat slowly.