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(RNS) With his round cheeks and ample belly, the Buddha may rank somewhere close to sumo wrestlers on most Americans’ list of go-to sources for healthy eating tips.
But the ever-present image of a fat and happy Buddha owes more to China’s ideal of prosperity and ability to mass-produce figurines than to historical accuracy. In places like Japan and India, the Buddha is depicted as trim and lithe, said the Rev. Jan Chozen Bays, a Zen priest and pediatrician, and his teachings may be key to overcoming Americans’ increasingly troubled eating habits.
Bays, who goes by the Dharma name Chozen (“clear meditation”), is a student and teacher of “mindful eating,” a practice that borrows liberally from Buddhist psychology and meditation techniques.
For calorie-counting Americans, mindful eating preaches an alert, moment-by-moment focus on emotions, food, and fullness. Buddhism teaches that “right mindfulness” is a step on the path to nirvana; in mindful eating, it could be a step toward a smaller waistline, especially for people struggling to keep those New Years resolutions to shed a few pounds.
Bay says hunger is only one of several reasons people eat.
Frustration, sadness, irritation, boredom, anxiety, anger and insecurity are all additional — if somewhat hidden — spurs to snacking.
Mindfulness can help foster an awareness of when and why these emotions arise, according to Bay, thereby sapping them of their power to control our lives.
“There’s no guarantee that mindful eating will help you lose weight,” said Bays, who’s led mindful eating retreats in Oregon for seven years and is author of the 2009 book, “Mindful Eating.”
“But it will help you enter a balanced, helpful relationship with food again.”
Beside the Buddha, mindful eating also draws lessons and inspiration from Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program, which introduced the masses — and the medical establishment — to a secularized form of meditation in 1979. Since then, studies have shown the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on everything from substance abuse to psoriasis, and hundreds of hospitals have established mindfulness clinics.
Dr. Jean Kristeller, a psychologist and director of the Center for the Study of Health, Religion, and Spirituality at Indiana State University, has studied meditation for 30 years. As co-founder of the Center for Mindful Eating, Kristeller has also received two grants from the National Institutes of Health to study the effects of mindful eating. While the studies’ results have not yet been published, Kristeller said she has seen firsthand that mindful eating works.
“You can take a diet and create external rules on food intake …
and sometimes that will produce results,” Kristeller said. “But for many people, they haven’t actually learned to relate differently to the process of eating and the process of choosing and being aware of the multiple processes around making mindful choices.”
Some, but not all, proponents of mindful eating are Buddhists themselves, said Dr. Brian Shelley, who developed a mindful eating program at the University of New Mexico. And while advocates are open about the Buddhist roots of mindfulness, they are not out to gain converts.
“It’s more like a cognitive therapy than a spiritual practice,” said Shelley, who meditates and studies the Buddha’s teachings but does not consider himself a Buddhist. “We are very clear that this is not a course in Buddhism or spirituality.”
Sheryl Canter, a healthy-eating counselor in New York, said mindful eating is part of a larger movement away from diets toward what she calls “normal eating” that is gaining steam among health-conscious Americans. “We tell ourselves we don’t know how to feed ourselves,” said Canter. Mindful eating urges people to listen to internal cues about when and what to eat instead of “food experts” and faddish diets, she said.
While she generally supports the practice, Canter said mindful eating fails to address the underlying emotional issues that drive unhealthy habits.
Many nutritionists — including mindful eating teachers — now believe the problem with American diets is not only the food we eat– it’s also how we consume it.
The Buddha told monks to take meals silently, with no books or conversations to distract them, only an awareness of what their body needs to get through the day. When they felt full, they stopped eating, even if that meant leaving food in the bowl, Bays said.
Studies have shown that people tend to eat more when they are given larger portions and are distracted (i.e. watching television, surfing the Internet, commuting to work). Meanwhile, because the body is focused elsewhere, it fails to be satisfied by the meal, leading to even more hunger, according to Bays and other mindful eating proponents.
Bays begins mindful eating retreats with a single raisin, asking practitioners to consider how hungry they are on a scale of one to 10, while they investigate the color, texture, and taste of the raisin. The goal, she said, is to replace thinking with awareness.
“In Christian terms, it’s called communion,” Bays said, “coming into union with everything happening at that moment.”

By DANIEL BURKE
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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