[The squirrel] climbed the garden wall to escape from my cat. The next week I saw him tucking into peanuts meant for the birds. I thought, ‘Eat too many of those, my friend, and next time you won’t be able to climb the wall.’ But to my surprise, he suddenly stopped eating the nuts and started storing them. How did he know when to stop eating? (Carr, 17)
All living beings require nourishment to sustain their existence and humans are no exception to this rule. Unfortunately, for those of us who are privileged enough to have options when it comes to what we put into our bodies, the act of eating can present a real conundrum. While eating should be one of the most natural things we do, our consumerist society has led many of us to believe that we need to eat and look a particular way, thereby fostering within us an unhealthy relationship with food. It is ironic that, as a species, we have managed to resolve some of the most intricate problems—the invention of the wheel and the near eradication of poliovirus come to mind—but we are baffled when faced with the simple act of nourishing ourselves.
According to the late author Allen Carr, only human beings and domesticated animals are prone to obesity. Other sentient beings, when provided with the opportunity to do so, will naturally eat the appropriate foods—in quantity and quality—to stay healthy and energized. Carr is known the world over for creating the Easyway method for addressing problematic issues such as smoking, and eating and drinking to excess. His view was that we as a society have been brainwashed into believing that putting a stop to these harmful habits constitutes a sacrifice. As such, we rely on willpower to make changes, which are inherently short-lived. His theory extends to eating: our obsessive diet culture has provided the illusion that eating correctly constitutes a sacrifice and that in order to be healthy we require expert advice on exercise and diet. Yet, as Carr explains, this is a trap that only serves to perpetuate our suffering:
[Diets] just turn what should be a very pleasant activity into an absolute nightmare. The only thing you can think about between meals is food, and when lunchtime finally arrives you’re depressed because you can’t eat the quantity or type of food that you would like. You’re miserable every time you stray from your diet, and only slightly less miserable when you stick with it. Even if you do somehow stick to it for long enough to lose the excess weight, the chances are you soon return to your previous eating habits, and the weight piles back on depressingly quickly—far faster than it came off! (Carr, 17)
So how can we humans cultivate a healthy relationship with food? Are we forever bound to count calories and to keep up to date with the newest trends? Or can we learn to recognize naturally what sustains us, in the same way that the squirrel does? According to Carr, it is necessary to reframe our relationship with eating in order to make positive change, a view that was also espoused by Shakyamuni Buddha in the Early Buddhist Canon. In the Donapaka Sutta, King Pasenadi approached the Buddha after having stuffed his face on a “whole bucketful of food.” His discomfort was evident in the way he sat to one side, “engorged and panting.” Noticing this, the Buddha uttered the following verse:
When a person is constantly mindful,
And knows when enough food has been taken,
All their afflictions become more slender
—They age more gradually, protecting their lives. (SN 3.13)
Like Carr, the Buddha highlights the importance of having the correct frame of mind when eating: instead of using willpower, as is the case with so many dieting methods, the practitioner is encouraged to cultivate right mindfulness. It is a balanced and holistic approach, where mind and body come together to signal when our being has been appropriately nourished. For those who are familiar with the Buddha’s path to enlightenment, it will come as no surprise that he does not condone an all-or-nothing approach to eating. Having experienced an abundance of pleasures in the kingdom he grew up in, as well as severe asceticism in his early adulthood, the Buddha came to embrace the middle path. Here, he suggests that right mindfulness will naturally allow us to be in tune with what sustains us.
The beauty of this approach is that it doesn’t just address the immediate problem of eating in excess. As the Buddha points out, being mindful while eating will help minimize all of our afflictions. Rather than being fixated on achieving a particular weight, or looking a certain way, the practice of eating mindfully allows us to be in tune with the needs of the body in the here and now. Furthermore, it enables us to develop a peaceful and balanced approach that can be applied to other aspects of our lives. The benefits are plentiful and they are long-term, because they allow us to protect our lives as a whole.
One does not have to be a Buddhist in order to cultivate mindfulness, and anyone who eats mindfully will reap positive consequences. That said, for those who would like to find out more about Buddhist practices that can improve our relationship with food, dietitian Jenna Hollenstein offers a variety of tools to this effect in her book Eat to Love (Lionheart Press 2019). Among them is a guided mindful eating exercise that I particularly enjoyed because Hollenstein gives the reader permission to practice with any food we love—such as pizza!—even if it is deemed unhealthy. She also offers tools that are a variation of existing Buddhist practices, such as tonglen meditation and loving-kindness meditation for the body. Above all, she encourages the reader to approach the act of eating with an abundance of love that can be extended to our bodies and souls.
Carr, Allen. 2017. No More Diets. London: Arcturus Publishing.
Hollenstein, Jenna. 2019. Eat to Love. Somerville, MA: Lionheart Press.
Olendzki, Andrew (trans.). 2013. SN 3.13. “Donapaka Sutta: King Pasenadi Goes on a Diet.” Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 2 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn03/sn03.013.olen.html.