As summer begins, many of us are planning for pleasant events such as BBQs, beach clean-ups, and special Vassa preparations with our sanghas. Others may find the warmer days bring up unpleasant emotions related to diets, “bikini bodies”, and beliefs that our lives will be so much better… if only we can lose those last five pounds! We may even tell ourselves that we cannot, do not deserve to, join in some of the pleasures of summer until we attain a particular weight. How can we reconcile the desire to participate fully and freely in our lives, and the punishing relationships we have with food?
An answer comes in the teachings of the Buddha. They may be practiced when we consume nourishing foods in moderation, focusing on wellness instead of weight. This creates a sense of equanimity and appreciation toward food, which promotes our health rather than further conditioning us toward self-hatred and grasping for outcomes. As Siddhartha Gautama discovered, we can never control our physical bodies successfully enough to ensure that we will be happier or more “spiritual” forevermore. After many years of austerities, including consuming so little food that he became utterly emaciated in his spiritual quest, he was determined to achieve liberation. Physically weakened by the extremity of his deprivations, he became stalled in his practice and could not quite access complete freedom. According to a tender and lovely story in the commentaries, a woman named Sujata found him meditating under a tree, and offered him a bowl of simple rice porridge. He contemplated the gift, noting that a moderate path, marked by neither gluttony nor deprivation, may offer the ease and well-being that is conducive to refining awareness. Upon consuming this modest meal, he was strengthened enough to resume his meditations with renewed energy, and shortly thereafter achieved nibbana.
We can take the Buddha’s model as a guide when making our dietary choices as well. It is skillful to base our meal planning on principles of moderation, balance, and variety. A diet marked by overconsumption may lead us toward otherwise avoidable health problems, discomfort in the body, increased craving and reinforcement of preferences, and a lack of clarity and sense of sluggishness in the heart and mind. In this way, food can be an agent of harm, like other substances of use and abuse addressed in the Fifth Precept. The potential for unskillful behavior around food is particularly strongly associated with over-consumption of added sugars, refined grain products, and processed, packaged foods that are high in added sugar, salt, and fats. These types of foods have been shown in studies to trigger addictive pathways of craving and reward-seeking in the brain.
An extreme approach to food that is based on deprivation is likewise potentially harmful. Emaciation, damage to the bones and heart, and stress and strain to the metabolic system are examples of the harm that may ensue upon food restriction. This type of “diet mentality” can create and underscore a relationship with food that unnecessarily combative and harsh. When we begin to limit our meal choices to “allowable” foods (often cutting out entire categories of healthful whole foods) our energy and attention is directed in a punitive and judgmental manner toward policing our own food intake.
This may also prompt a tight, constricted internal battle of desire for “forbidden” or simply more food, and attempts to overcome the craving through force of will – samsara is present even in our relationship with food! Meals become weapons in a war for control over outcomes, the pursuit of a particular body size or shape, onto which we’ve pinned impossible expectations for lasting happiness. We behave with a harmful attitude toward ourselves when we engage in this counterproductive, grim food regimen, driven by aversion and craving, rather than allowing a more relaxed and joyous appreciation of the benefits that a simple, healthful, and nourishing diet, adequate to our personal needs, provides.
When we give gentle, forgiving attention to our dietary choices, we support our ability to participate fully in our lives and our communities. This more balanced approach does not mean engaging in extreme diets meant to attain a particular weight, nor does it mean abandoning ourselves to follow every craving that hedonism and advertising can conspire to prompt in us. It means applying the wise and compassionate direction given by the Buddha regarding the benefits of the middle way not only to our dhamma practice, but also to our dinner practice! We are invited in this practice to bring the same mindfulness to how we nourish ourselves as we can bring to all of our bodily activities. This is the best type of “diet” to undertake as we gear up for an active summer – one based on awareness of the body in a new way.Noticing the sense triggers that drive our behavior, we have the opportunity to slow down our reactive responses, whether they are most often expressed through unmindful overconsumption, or calculated deprivation. This gives us spaciousness and freedom to develop more skillful habits in this arena, learning to nourish ourselves with fresh, seasonal, plant-based foods that are simply prepared and consumed in moderation when our bodies are hungry. Resetting our relationship with food toward the middle way is a fruit of practice originally modeled by Siddhartha Gautama and no less applicable and beneficial today.
Lulu Cook, RDN, is a vegan nutritionist with a background in sustainable food systems and mindful eating. She has been trained as a Dhamma group facilitator with Noah Levine (Dharma Punx and Against the Stream), and is currently a student of Amma Thanasanti (Awakening Truth). She is a householder in the Bay Area who practices the Dhamma as it unfolds in a busy urban home with two dogs, a daughter and partner, and the occasional hip-hop concert.