We’re eating more and putting on weight. Why is it so hard to change our habits, and how can simplicity and paying mindful attention help?
I am sure I’m not the only one finds himself delving into the fridge for a snack and then asking, “What on earth am I doing?” This week we heard preliminary results from a huge study by researchers at Birmingham University showing that, however fit we are, being overweight increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. Add in cancer and diabetes and the case for maintaining a healthy weight is irrefutable.
We already knew this, really, but it doesn’t alter the fact that many of us struggle to control our eating. The issues around obesity in our society are complex – poverty and education are factors, and eating disorders may mean you eat too little rather than too much. In extreme cases medical intervention is needed. But I think many more of us can help ourselves by exploring the impulses and habits that affect our eating.
If I catch myself before the biscuit is actually in my mouth, I try to be curious about what’s prompting me to eat it. Often, I notice that I’m not really hungry, or rather that the hunger that’s motivating me is emotional rather than bodily or cellular. I want stimulation, or perhaps comfort, and long-established habits connect those needs with eating. Just noticing the impulse without acting on it interrupts my unconscious snacking habit. It creates a gap that brings a greater possibility of choice.
That gap is the heart of Buddhist practice. For Buddhism, compulsive behaviour never satisfies our craving. In fact, it encourages yet more craving to develop, and that in turn makes us suffer. That’s how food becomes connected with so much else: a desire for a better body, reassurance or stimulation. It becomes a focus of guilt and anxiety and a substitute for more dependable sources of satisfaction.
The Buddha’s advice was: “Have a sense of moderation in eating and eat simply for the continuance of your body.” Buddhist monks still follow a rule of not eating after midday and some only take one meal. That removes the temptation to wander towards the fridge or the mango grove in an idle moment and frees up time and energy for their Buddhist practice.
Beyond the important benefits for our health and waistline, eating in moderation is a way of simplifying our lives. The aim isn’t to deny ourselves pleasures. It’s a way of finding satisfaction in simplicity and the contentment it brings. As one Zen teacher said, ‘When walking, walk. When eating, eat.’