“One who ruins their body can never gain great awakening.”
“Mr. Hudson,” my nurse said with a saccharine smile that betrays her true feelings on the subject. “You need to be on a diet. See if you can get down to 187lbs., which is appropriate for your height.”
Like many Americans, if you met me, you would not think I was fat. I am not skinny, but fat would probably not be in your list of adjectives about me. I am 5’ 10” tall with a 35 inch waist, 46 inch chest and eat a healthy diet. Meanwhile, my weight at the start of this article was 225lbs. and I haven’t had a regular exercise routine since I retired from the Navy in 2007. So when the nurse looks at her BMI (Body Mass Index) chart, I come up “morbidly obese.
Forty three pounds! That is the weight of a 3rd grader or Border collie. I remember being 187 pounds and I had a 30 inch waist and just celebrated my 25th birthday (15 years ago). I had also tried dieting: Atkins, South Beach, low-fat, low-carb, low-sugar, etc. They work and then you slip back into old habits.
Habits? What better way to break old habits than through Buddhism! We train ourselves in meditation to become more mindful and skillful: to break the habits of our conditioning to create outlooks more conducive to our practice to end suffering. I will use “Applied Buddhism” to create is a Buddhist diet.
STEP 1: PREPARATION
Just as in any meditation practice, we must always first prepare. In my Theravada practice, this involves preparing offerings to the Buddha, preparing my home temple or the sanctuary at our community temple, and chanting our refuge, precepts and homage to the Buddha.
In my diet, I set my own preparation. I prepared my home by removing all the foods that I no longer wanted to participate in my diet: pizza, ice cream, chips, fruit juice, etc. My home being the proverbial temple for my health and welfare had to be cleansed of temptation.
The Center for Mindful Eating (TCME) believes that foods “call” to us. And since it is challenging to be totally mindful at all times, it is too easy to fall into the samsara temptations of pleasure eating. Removing the temptations may not make the cravings go away, but makes it necessary to be mindful of our actions when we jump in the car late at night to the local market for that pint of “Chunky Monkey.”
I then added an “app” to my iPhone called, “Lose it.” The application is a quick way to record the food intake throughout the day. Much more convenient than the old “paper, pen and calorie book” method: “Lose it” is free and even has the menus of many major restaurants and store brand foods already entered. I take “refuge” to my application as a guide —not only an accountant of my caloric intake, but as a tool to be mindful of how I eat and my cravings throughout the day.
Note: Many people believe that the greatest craving that we have as humans is the craving for sexual lusts. While that craving is strong, it is probably more likely that the craving for foods is stronger. A monk can renounce carnal pleasures, but he cannot renounce food. Foods will always have pleasant and unpleasant qualities about them. The tastes of food will always “call” to them.
Starting my diets, I decided that I would restrict myself to 1,700 calories a day (that is what the program stated would allow me to lose 2lbs a week). My normal caloric intake was between 2,000 and 2,400 calories a day; and the average American feels that a 2,000 calorie diet is appropriate.
I also decided that I would not “plan” my daily diet routine. It is not something I had ever done before; and, honestly, I believe that extensive requirements for preparation of foods are one of the big reasons why diets fail. Americans will always be people on the go and despisers of routine or regimen.
The only new rules I placed on myself were the following:
1. I must eat breakfast, lunch and dinner.
2. I will eat my dinner before 6pm and have no food after that point. (Tea and gum were allowed)
3. I will avoid red meats (because of the carbon footprint needed to grow beef) and corn syrup (a complex sugar that is more difficult to digest).
4. I will only measure calorie intake.
5. I will only walk 30-45 minutes a day for exercise to follow more closely measure the effects of the diet.
6. We will measure the diet for one month.
STEP 2: CRAVING
Anyone who has adopted a serious meditation practice remembers the first days of meditation. Minutes or seconds after starting the itching and uncomfortable feelings start. The mind is restless: even too restless to call it “monkey mind.” Within 10-20 minutes, the joints are on fire and the urge to move is unbearable.
Welcome to my first day of my Buddha Diet.
Before I started, I would have said that I ate pretty healthy. My foods consisted of mostly whole grains, fruits, veggies, occasionally small portions of meat. I never identified myself as someone who craved sweets or junk food. Was I surprised to discover what I ate in a day!
BREAKFAST: My breakfast foods were normally cereals: Rice Crispies, Cheerios, Rice Chex. Of the three, only Rice Chex didn’t have corn syrup in it. The back-up “I-am-in-a-rush” breakfast is a banana, which didn’t have corn syrup but was still a pretty sugary meal: 16.6 grams of sugar.
It was an eye opener.
LUNCH: Eating breakfast and busy work schedule kept my mind off of food for the morning, but when lunch came I was ready to go again. A reasonable meal of a chicken wrap consisting of 500 calories seemed as it would be filling, but I was surprised that I was still hungry. It could have been a snack for two more sandwiches.
This is where I first started feeling the craving for more. Normally, I would have chips and maybe a cottage cheese with fruit with lunch as well. My body expected it. As I sat with the feeling of craving, I had to ask myself what was it my body wanted? What could I do to deal with this craving?
The first solution I came up with was pacing. I had so used to eating “on the go” that I had “woofed” my meal down. I didn’t really enjoy it, or gave my body a chance to process how much food had gone into my body.
I also started recognizing that my “idea” of what lunch was included an image of a sandwich, with two snacks. Eating the sandwich was an incomplete image.
Finally, my “hunger” for more food was not driven by my appetite: I had plenty of food. My desires for more food were also driven by pleasure of the senses of eating food and spending time with coworkers chatting over lunch.
Let your appetite be driven by your stomach and not your mind.
That realization into my habits and conditioning created an aspect about me to progress on. Just as sitting in breathing meditation allows me the opportunity to dispassionately observe my body and thoughts, being mindful of how as well as what I eat provided me opportunity to see the conditioning of my body and mind in relation to food.
When pain comes to my knee while meditating, I shift my focus to the knee and explore the nature of that pain. I investigate displeasure, the nature of aversion to discomfort, and develop an understanding about my own nature of aversion, craving and delusion. Likewise, when the craving for foods come (and often without any conscious thought to them) I must dispassionately become the observer and explore the nature of that hunger, the delusions of what I feel I need for food compared to what I require and the aversion to the discomfort of denying myself the pleasurable sensations of eating.
DINNER: Knowing that this would be my last meal of the day, the cravings came out in full force. My mind started rationalizing what foods and what quantities I wanted in an effort to convince me that my body needed more because it wanted more.
“Are you sure you got enough protean?” my mind asked. “You had a busy day and if you don’t eat more, you will be exhausted and get sick.”
I had consulted two dieticians before I started this diet. I knew that my caloric intake was adequate. The spacing of my food ensured that I was continually putting in more fuels as my day progress. My records indicated that I ate enough proteins, vitamins, etc. to feed my body properly. And yet, my mind was constantly pleading its case that “more was better.”
Resolving not to “woof” down my dinner, I skillfully ate smaller portions and chewed my food thoroughly. The experience was very unpleasant. My resolve won out over desire, but the feelings of tortured was almost unbearable as my eyes, nose and tongue were teased with the sensual lusts of my meal.
TWO WEEKS LATER
Carefully, recording my meals for the first week, created a clear idea of the difference between eating 1700 calories a day compared to 2000 or 2200. By the start of week two, my mind was practiced enough to see the effects of unmindful eating. So much of my diet had been influenced and set by American culture: how much we should eat, what foods brings happiness, the continual desires and opportunities to snack.
In my workplace many of the other employees maintain candy bowls, where I can find myself popping a “fun sized” bit of chocolate into my mouth without even noticing. The availability created the “want” for chocolate, which manifested itself with an automatic response of reaching in and digesting one, two or three chocolates before noticing what I had done.
Other observations were how many “convenience” foods looked deceptively healthy or healthily portions.
Chantal Gariepy, RD, CDE, a dietitian and diabetes educator with the Sansum Clinic in Santa Barbara, Calif; proposed avoiding favorite foods just increased the sensations and cravings for them. “It is a juvenile (vs. mature) approach to eating.” By facing and dealing with the hunger for unhealthy and unnecessary foods brings, not only a healthy relationship with our eating by addressing the issue of unwholesome attachments to eating; but also develops a level of concentration and reconditioning of the mind.
The Center for Mindful Eating states that “foods ‘call’ to us whether they’re in front of us or not … a mindful eater would be aware would also be aware, in a neutral way, of the frequency of these cravings.
Ellyn Satter (MS, RD, LCSW), a lecturer and author of “Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family; believes that there is a “child and “parent” set of thoughts that reside in our minds. Discipline is the key to containing both. Just like meditation that requires practice of mindfulness, insight, and concentration. “We need to incorporate those foods in regular, structured meals and snack, and we have to pay attention when we eat.”
At the end of two weeks, my weight has dropped from 225lbs to 212lbs (weighed at the same time each day), which was encouraging. It was also encouraging that after directly facing and dealing with my paradigms about “what makes a meal” my body and mind accepted the change calorie intake. It certainly was easier deal with the cravings with established skills taken from meditation than denying types of foods like I have done on other diets.
Overall, I am now finishing my month-long experiment and very satisfied with the results. I have not only lost nearly 20 pounds (which my dieticians say is fantastic and healthy), but I have developed a greater understanding into myself and my Buddhist practice.
TIPS ON HOW TO EAT WITH BUDDHIST PRACTICE
- When you eat, always be aware of what you are eating.
- Continually remind yourself that food may be pleasurable, but it is fuel not entertainment or an emotional substitute.
- Never reward yourself with a food treat. If, every time you accomplished a goal, you rewarded yourself with a $1,000 shopping spree how long would it take before you stopped and just allowed the joy of accomplishment be enough?
- Never eat something until you had time to think about that choice. Do you need to eat it? After you have finished eating that pleasure food, will you regret it?
- At the start of daily (or weekly meditation) take a minute to reflect on your relationship with food. “Meditation develops your concentration,” says Megrette Fletcher, RD, cofounder of the Center for Mindful Eating in West Nottingham, New Hampshire.
- Keep a calorie journal. My journal was an application on iPhone, but you can just as easily buy a book that notates the calories of every food and recording everything.
- According to the Center for Mindful Eating, think of eating as scale with “starving” on one side and “stuffed” on the other. In Okinawa, there is a cultural tradition called “hara hachi bu” which means “eat until you are only 80% full.” Okinawa has the largest population of centenarians in the world.
- Chew your food! It can take 20 minutes for the body to register what you have eaten. Taking time, allows the mind to catch up to the mouth. In addition, chewing gum before a meal creates the mental sensation of starting the meal early and the mind—thinking it has been eating for a longer time—will lessen your appetite.
- Avoid ice cold drinks when eating! Cold drinks push food through the stomach, but hot drinks also loosen up the stomach muscles and give the sensation that you are fuller.
- Do not eat on autopilot. (“Don’t eat where you … !”) Eating while driving, working, watching TV are all very convenient. They are also distracting. I can eat an entire large pizza without noticing or enjoying the experience. Move your eating time to a separate location where eating is the primary mission.
- Food is only a reward when training puppies! Did you finally get your five mile run finished in 40 minutes? Fantastic! But don’t make that an excuse to open up the pint of ice cream. When you find yourself “treating” yourself to food, stop and investigate those feelings and cravings instead. Then put the spoon down!
- Don’t measure yourself to who you think you should be. Just as in meditation, we must be in the moment. Phrases like “only if I …” will demotivate and discourage progress. Buddhism teaches that there is the conceit of thinking we are better than others and also the conceit of thinking that others are better than us. Craving for a “self” concept and a permanent image of what our impermanent bodies should look like creates suffering.