June 18, 2013

Can Diet Programs Be Buddhist in Nature? ~ Matthew Cavalier

Now, let’s start by admitting that many of us diet so we can look good in our bathing suits and feel better about ourselves.

There is nothing wrong with that. However, too much focus on the outer appearance and feeding our ego, is not in line with Buddhist teachings. I’ll admit that my venture into the world of weight loss was fueled by a desire to look better—but also a desire to nurture a healthy body.

It is the latter that I wish to focus on.

At my heaviest, I weighed 215 pounds. I am only 5 foot 9, and as you can see from the picture—I was overweight.

I was at a friend’s house when I stepped on their scale and saw the 215 pound truth staring me in the face. Needless to say, I broke down crying and sat on the floor for several minutes before I could compose myself again.

I mean, so what that I’d been feeling like I didn’t fit in my body. So what that too much walking winded me. So what if I had avoided going out because I was ashamed. After reading that scale though, I couldn’t avoid it any longer.

That’s when I decided to take my weight loss seriously. That, of course, means I waited another month and a half before I went to see my doctor. I talked to her about weight loss and the related issue of severe acid reflux that I had been suffering of late. She told me that one of the easiest ways to fight acid reflux is to eat less. If you stuff your stomach, it leaves no where for the excess acid to go—but up. This seemed quite logical to me, so I made a conscious effort to reduce the amount of food I was eating.

It was difficult at first to tell myself to stop. But I did it. And within two weeks, I was eating half of what I’d typically eat. Around that time I returned to my doctor for a follow up visit and discovered I’d lost 12 pounds. To me, that was a miracle. I hadn’t changed what I ate—just remained focused on how much I ate.

This was when I started going to yoga on a regular basis. I was going like it was my new religion. Three to four days a week were spent on the yoga mat sweating the pounds away.

I wanted more. I wanted to keep the pounds dropping. So, after watching Jennifer Hudson (literally) sing the praises of Weight Watchers, I joined. It was extremely helpful. I downloaded the app so I could process my points anywhere. I bought a scale to measure out food amounts; I bought into the program completely. I drank the Weight Watchers Kool-Aid: it only cost me 2 points. I found I enjoyed the process. Even more, I enjoyed losing the weight.

What got me thinking about weight loss’s connection to Buddhism was the attention I pay to what I eat.

On the program, I mindfully plan my meals. I weigh out every ounce. I eat more slowly. I am cognizant of every morsel that goes in my mouth. I can recognize when I am shoveling food into my mouth—I am aware when I need to put the fork down and step away from the food.

Devout Buddhist monks have an even more strict version of Weight Watchers (no, I am definitely not comparing myself to a Buddhist monk). When they arrive in the monastery, they are given their robes and a small bowl. Each meal they eat must fit into the small bowl: it is the only amount they can eat. Many monks will even go as far as begging for their food to fill their bowls, eating only one meal a day. This limitation on food is not so they look more attractive in their robes: it is to ensure their mindfulness while eating.

This is why diets can prove successful. When you are mindful of your intake—you lose the weight. When you cease being mindful, the weight creeps back on and you go on another diet. This is why so many diet programs (or lifestyle changes as they prefer to be called now) focus as much on how you eat as what you eat.

There is a great book called, In the Praise of Slowness, by Carl Honore’. It talks about taking life more slowly and deliberately. The suggestions in the book regarding food are to put your fork down between each bite. Make sure you don’t eat alone, in front of the TV or playing on your cell phone or computer. The more social the atmosphere—the less likely you are to shovel the food into your mouth.

The slower you eat the more mindful you are of your “fill line.” It takes the stomach roughly twenty minutes to signal the brain that it is full. If you are mindlessly eating and shoveling…you are packing 20 minutes of extra food into your stomach.

Pay attention and slow down. Trust me (it helps).

Mindfulness is the most basic tenet of Buddhism. We practice the mindfulness of breath, the mindfulness of walking, and yes, even the mindfulness of eating. The key to so many aspects of our life is to slow down and pay attention. Be in the present moment. It can improve your relationships, your work quality, and even (I posit)—your weight.

My favorite quote from Thich Nhat Hanh is, “Smile, breathe, and go slowly.” Such a great way to remain aware of the present moment we are living in.



Matthew Cavalier teaches middle school and is a practicing yogi. He recently discovered his attraction to Buddhism and yoga and how they merge together to form his spirituality. Matthew is the author of the Accidental Buddhism blog.


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