With so many of us being overweight or having “issues” with food, there’s been a welcome interest in — and a slew of books about — learning to eat more mindfully. Freelance writer Mandy Sutter gives us a “taste” of what three of these books has to offer.
As a former yo-yo dieter, ‘mindful eating’ was an idea I skirted around when first encountering Buddhist practice. It sounded too much like a diet. But the phrase still lurked in a corner, like a giant spider you can’t help looking at. Eventually I had to coax the spider onto a piece of cardboard, cover it with a beer glass and take it outside — in other words, buy three books on mindful eating: The Zen of Eating, by Ronna Kabatznick, Ph.D, Eating the Moment by Pavel G Somov, PhD, and Meal by Meal by Donald Altman.
Kabatznick presents herself as a specialist in weight management first and a long-time mindfulness practitioner second. But The Zen of Eating is a book about spiritual practice: she sets out to show how accepting the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths can stop you overeating. She goes on to analyse the Eightfold Path in terms of its relevance to food choices. It’s a worry that the Middle Way might end up being pressed into the service of fatties everywhere, and sometimes the text creaks as detailed aspects of Buddhist practice are forced into relevance with eating, but most of the book works very well. In her section on ‘Right Aspiration’ for example, Kabatznick talks about how mindful eating can be undermined when motivated by vanity. If a choice to restrict certain foods is made to benefit others though, there can be meaning behind the action. She suggests dedication of merit: offering any benefit that comes from your commitment to healthy eating to specific people or groups of people (for example cutting back on red meat could be dedicated to heart disease patients).
Verdict: although contrived in places, The Zen of Eating is a thoughtful, intelligent read.
Pavel G. Somov’s Eating the Moment offers a completely different take on the subject. It’s practical and it’s funny. Somov has the florid, enjoyable writing style of a raconteur, addressing us as ‘dear reader’ and advising us to phone in sick to make time to experiment with all the different ways of cooking eggs.
His book is a collection of varied suggestions to overcome overeating: 141 in all. Some relate to spiritual practice as much as to eating: for example, he suggests watching a lava lamp as a visual metaphor for the morphing nature of thought. Another suggestion ‘The Admittedly Annoying Thorough Chewing Exercise’ is geared at self-awareness, and another ‘The Carrot Cake Fight’ has us throwing ‘snowballs’ of carrot cake at a tree in order to stop carrot cake saying simply ‘eat me.’
Verdict: delightful to read, but will you practice the techniques? I tried three then got overwhelmed by the number of suggestions.
Meal by Meal by Donald Altman offers a third approach: a year of daily meditations. I’m a sucker for being told what to do on certain days, even though in voracious frames of mind I’m capable of reading and even doing a whole week’s worth of suggestions. In dilatory states I fail to pick up the book at all, of course, and am tempted to time travel if I don’t like one particular day’s suggestion. So, right from page one, the book’s format brings you into contact with yourself.
The meditations themselves are quite lengthy, exposing you to a quotation, asking you at least one probing question, then suggesting an action. Some are beautiful, if pious. On March 15th, you quiet a diet-crazed mind by repeating a meaningful word, like Om, to yourself at the table. Some verge on the polemical, and are therefore complicated. On July 21st you’re asked, ‘do your current food choices leave you wanting fewer side effects and discomforts? Is temporary food pleasure worth discomfort or even long-term health problems?’
Others are imaginative: on October 21st you reflect on how cookbooks and diet books are often placed opposite each other in bookshops. It’s a metaphor for your conflicting desires: can you walk through the aisle without grabbing either?
Verdict: overcomplicated, but containing real gems.
All three books are worth a look. The Zen of Eating came top for me, because I loved its rigour and commitment; the way it reached into all the little corners of its subject. I trusted its author the most. But if you want something practical I’d recommend Eating the Moment and if you value answering questions about yourself as a way to awareness, I’d recommend Meal by Meal.