In affluent societies, obesity has become a major health problem and the weight-loss industry is a multi-billion dollar one. Treatments for obesity include the administering of appetite suppressants, psychotherapy, dietary counselling and even surgical procedures. But the most effective treatments remain simple and inexpensive ones – exercise and modification of dietary habits whereby caloric intake is typically reduced. Nonetheless, these are treatments many people have difficulty applying.
Once King Pasenadi went to the Buddha bloated and breathing in a laboured manner as a result of having eaten yet another enormous meal. Seeing this, the Buddha said: ‘When a person is mindful and thus knows moderation in eating, his ailments diminish, he ages gently and he protects his life.’ The king got the hint and asked his nephew to repeat these words to him whenever he was taking his meals. As a result, the king gradually reduced his food intake, lost weight and regained his slim figure (S.I,81-2).
In affluent societies, few people eat to ease hunger as they eat so much and so often that they rarely actually feel hungry. Food is widely and easily available so we eat on impulse, out of boredom, in response to advertising, for fun, to experience supposedly new or unusual flavours or just ‘to tempt the taste buds’ as some advertisements put it. At the time the food is actually consumed, we are often distracted, eating mechanically and hardly noticing what we are doing. As a result, many of us worry about our weight when we are not eating while hardly noticing it when we are actually eating. This can lead to being over-weight or obese.
The value of the Buddha’s advice to King Pasenadi – to eat with mindfulness (sati) – is only beginning to be recognised by dieticians and weight-loss experts. Eating mindfully helps turn a habituated behaviour into a conscious one, where the possibility of choice is increased. It allows us to pause for a moment, think about and be aware of what we are about to do and why, and often this is enough to bring about a change in behaviour.
Mindfulness can also allow us to see the urge to eat as it arises and then just watch it with detachment rather than giving in to it. The regular practice of mindfulness of breathing will make it more likely that we will remember to be mindful before and while eating. Something else that can be helpful is to occasionally practise what can be called ‘eating meditation’ – eating alone and without haste, focused fully on what we are doing, being aware of the taste of each mouthful, chewing it fully, swallowing it completely before taking the next mouthful, etc. When supplemented with regular exercise and a well-balanced diet, mindful eating is a natural, gentle and effective way to maintain a healthy body weight.
It is significant that the Buddha chose to motivate King Pasenadi with a positive instead of a negative message. Rather than regale him with an account of the problems caused by obesity, he listed the benefits of losing weight – a reduction of bodily ailments (tanu tassa bhavanti vedanā), a slowing of the ageing process (saṇikaṁ jīrati) and a general enhancement of life (āyu pālayaṁ) – all benefits of a healthy weight and diet confirmed by modern medicine. The Buddha knew positive reinforcement is often more effective in motivating people