Man's desire for food is one of his most self-destructive traits. Aadam (Adam) and Hawwa’ (Eve), may Allah exalt his mention, were expelled from Paradise, the abode of eternal bliss, to the dwelling of suffering and humiliation, because of their appetite. They were forbidden to eat from a specific tree, but, overcome by a need to satiate themselves, they ate from it and, as punishment, their private parts became apparent to them.
Indeed, the stomach is the source of most desires and illnesses. Building on a severe craving for food, a person then longs to satisfy sexual urges and other excessive desires for wealth and fame. Then, fulfilling these frivolous wants, as well as the ills it brings about, induces another consequence of overeating, which is ingratitude. However, if a slave humbles him/herself through hunger and constricts the ways of the devil to him or her, he or she will begin to yield and submit to Allah The Almighty, and be grateful to Him.
Further, this act, as the following Hadeeth shows, boasts of a therapeutic aspect; Al-Miqdam ibn Ma‘diakarib narrated that the Prophet said: “No man fills a vessel worse than his stomach. A few morsels that keep his back straight are sufficient for the son of Aadam. If he has to [increase], he should keep a third [of his stomach] for food, one third for drink and one third for breathing.'' [At-Tirmithi, Saheeh]
When the physician, Ibn Abu Masawayh, read this Hadeeth in the book of Abu Khaythamah it is reported that he remarked: “If people implement these words, they will be safe from diseases and illnesses, and clinics and pharmacies will not be needed.” He said that because most diseases have a correlation to satiety, one of the benefits of eating small amounts of food and avoiding having a full stomach, is that it is healthy and beneficial to the body.
Other advantages of eating less are: the mind is strengthened and the heart becomes gentler in nature, causing one to be willing to submit [to Allah The Almighty] and be modest, and to adopt asceticism and let desires and whims have a lesser hold on oneself. Since, conversely, overeating creates the opposite of all the above, the Prophet advised people to avoid it, as when he said in the previously mentioned Hadeeth: “A few morsels that keep his back upright are sufficient for the son of Adam.”
He also said: “The believer eats in one intestine and the disbeliever eats in seven intestines.” [Al-Bukhari, Muslim] This means that because a believer eats in accordance with the etiquettes of Sharee'ah, he or she eats as a person who has one set of intestines, whereas a disbeliever eats according to his or her appetite and greed, consuming as much as one would if he or she had seven intestines.
Furthermore, the Prophet encourages us to share our food with others, when he says: “The food of a single person is sufficient for two and the food of two is sufficient for three and the food of three is sufficient for four.” Therefore, it is best for a believer to eat, as the Prophet advised, by keeping equal space in the stomach for food, water and breathing.
The Prophet himself, and his Companions would go hungry for long periods of time. That can be attributed to a lack of food, but Allah The Almighty chose for His Messenger the best and most perfect of characteristics, and eating less was one of them. Hence, ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Umar and his father ‘Umar ibn Al-Khattab would emulate the Prophet in this regard, though they could afford to buy food. ‘Aishah recounted: “The family of Muhammad never ate their fill of wheat bread since arriving in Madeenah until his death.”
It is related by some righteous predecessors that even among the Children of Israel, there were some young men who were devoted to the worship of Allah The Almighty. When the time of their meal would come, one of them would caution: “Do not eat a lot, for if you do a lot, you will drink a lot; and in the end, you will lose a lot!”
Ibrahim ibn Ad-ham said, “He who controls his stomach, controls his desires and so, strengthens his religion; and whoever curbs his appetite comes to possess good morals. Disobedience to Allah The Almighty is far from the hungry, but comes easy to those who fill up their stomachs.” Undoubtedly, of the greatest benefits of hunger are: a weakening desire to indulge unlawful lusts and constraints on the evil-enticing self. The base desires and physical strength of humans is what leads to most sins, and as nutrients from food fuels both, eating less weakens both causes.
Just like a wild beast cannot be restrained unless enervated by starvation and then, bolts as soon as it is rejuvenated when fed, such is the human body. Luqman advised his son, “When the stomach is full, thinking becomes dormant, wisdom shuts down, and even the organs stop worshipping Allah The Almighty, out of slackness.”
Hunger also results in humility and eliminates discontentment, vanity and self-praise, which form the foundation of tyranny and heedlessness. Nothing quite humiliates or defeats a soul like hunger; people only sense their subservience to their Lord and realize their inherent weakness, when they are deprived of a morsel of food or sip of water.
Further, if a person does not see his or her own humiliation and disability, he or she will never realize the Might, Power and Subjugation of the Lord. One’s happiness lies in that and in controlling oneself, for only wretchedness comes from being controlled by desires. Therefore, one should always remain a little hungry and in need of his or her Lord.
After all, we cannot give our souls free rein to fulfill all its desires, be they lawful, for, if we did, we would fear that it will be said to us, on the Day of Resurrection, “You exhausted your pleasures during your worldly life and enjoyed them.” Hence, the more we struggle against our vain wants, let us be assured we will find greater reward in the Hereafter.