On New Year’s Day, many of us will resolve to lose weight. But before we finalise our weight loss plans, writer Mandy Sutter recommends taking a look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s interesting new book, Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life.
For millions of us, overweight is a seemingly intractable problem. We start diets and exercise programmes with good intentions, and may succeed in losing weight. But our new, low weight is hard to sustain and the pounds creep back on, sometimes gradually, sometimes indecently quickly.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr Lilian Cheung, authors of Savor, our difficulties aren’t entirely of our own making. The ‘obesigenic society’ we live in makes it tricky to live in a healthy, balanced way. There’s a proven link, for example, between the rise in obesity and the rise in TV watching. And food manufacturers are generally more concerned with turning in a good profit than with safeguarding people’s health.
A significant part of Savor is devoted to observations like these, backed up by intelligent discussion and reference to up-to-date scientific studies. The emphasis on interconnectedness is no accident (we Buddhists tend to bang on about such things) and marks the book out as more than just another book on weight loss. It takes the sting out of one’s own struggle too, and relieves the self-blame that strikes as one reaches for another chocolate in front of the afternoon film.
But having put our problems into context, the authors don’t let us rest on our laurels. The book is stuffed – perhaps a little surprisingly – with practical advice on eating and exercise.
A seasoned dieter will have seen much of this before, but what’s different about Savor is that the benefit of following the advice is described not just in terms of the self but also the wider community. Interconnectedness again. For example, it’s pointed out that riding a bike to work will not only help you lose weight but safeguard the clean air in your town, as will your next step: trying to persuade local government to build cycle paths.
Another thing that marks Savor out is the meditation exercises peppered throughout, the reference to Buddhist sutras, and gems like ‘the 7 practices of a mindful eater’. The exercises and references to Buddhist texts are well explained and justified within the weight-loss context, and therefore accessible to non-Buddhists.
I do wonder, however, if exhorting us to recite Thich Nhat Hanh’s Five Mindfulness Trainings once a week (pg 209) isn’t a bridge too far for the non-Buddhist reader (at whom the book seems to be aimed).
And although the book’s approach will fall like manna from Nirvana to some, it will alienate others (including Buddhists fat and thin alike) who don’t buy the idea that our society is in a bad way or even that our planet is in need of saving. Very occasionally the text degenerates into hectoring, as if one is attending a very right-on party and has been trapped (on the other side of the room from the food and drinks table) by an earnest bore.
But these slips are minor ones in a book that’s thoughtful, concerned, well researched and pleasingly wide-ranging.
Ignore the blurb on the cover, which makes mindfulness sound like the new ‘fix’ to help people lose weight. In fact, the book gets it the other (right) way round: our problems with weight offer us a golden opportunity to learn to live more mindfully.