Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book a cou­ple years back on mind­ful eat­ing. It’s his take on how to han­dle the prob­lem we seem to have — in American cul­ture, any­way — con­trol­ling our weight.

Not sur­pris­ingly, for him it comes back to mind­ful­ness. Being aware of what you’re doing, as you’re doing it. Vipassana med­i­ta­tion can help with that. So can turn­ing off the TV at mealtimes.

My fiancée and I are in the midst of wed­ding plans, and are crash-​​dieting (sort of) to fit into our respec­tive out­fits a lit­tle bet­ter. (I just don’t have the hips to carry off a dress the way I used to.)

Something that has been rather forcibly demon­strated to me is that I’ve had a very poor idea of suf­fi­ciency in food for years. What I mean by that is I’ve been in the habit, for a long time, of con­sum­ing more than I need — but believ­ing that I’ve been doing all right. I didn’t think I was over­do­ing any­thing; I felt I was keep­ing things fairly well balanced.

I was, too. Fish, fruits, veg­gies, grains, nuts, cheeses. Olive oil, pasta. The stuff that’s sup­posed to be health­ier. Very few fast foods (I don’t even know what a McMenu includes any more; it’s changed that much since the last time I was in there), not many pack­aged or over-​​processed foods.

That wasn’t (and isn’t) the prob­lem. The prob­lem was the quan­tity, not the qual­ity. The choices I was mak­ing were fine, but I was snork­ing down some­thing on the order of 2000 to 2500 calo­ries per day of it.

That doesn’t work. Even a diet com­posed of the most health­ful foods imag­in­able will cause net weight gain in suf­fi­cient quantities.

At my age and activ­ity level, I seem to be in an inter­est­ing zone where the num­ber of calo­ries I con­sume, divided by ten, is a decent pre­dic­tor of my weight. So 2000 calo­ries means 200 pounds, which is well above my ideal. 1800 would be 180, 1600 160, and so on.

Well, for the last five or six weeks, we’ve been lim­it­ing our­selves to 1200 calo­ries daily, and we haven’t reduced our exer­cise lev­els. (She’s still run­ning; I’m still bik­ing.) And yes, the weight is com­ing off. That isn’t surprising.

What is sur­pris­ing, to me, is that at 1200 calo­ries per day, I don’t feel like I’m starv­ing. I have to be very con­scious of the kinds of foods I eat — more pro­teins, more ‘healthy’ fats, con­sid­er­ably fewer car­bo­hy­drates — but it’s not a star­va­tion diet, and it’s not a sub­sis­tence diet.

That was not what I expected at all. I fig­ured I’d have ter­ri­ble energy lev­els, that I’d be sugar crash­ing all the time, that I’d want to sleep for 17 hours a day (well, that part wouldn’t be new or peculiar).

I know, intel­lec­tu­ally, that we have a prob­lem in American cul­ture with the notion of suf­fi­ciency, of sati­ety. We are sat­u­rated with mes­sages urg­ing us to con­sume, to cel­e­brate, to ingest, to engulf, to take and take and take. That is how our econ­omy works; it’s an econ­omy of consumption.

That’s a ter­ri­ble way to run a nation, but it works beau­ti­fully if, as a CEO, your only inter­est is in mak­ing as much money as you pos­si­bly can, as fast as you can. Which is another man­i­fes­ta­tion of our lack of sati­ety. So the prob­lem is self-​​perpetuating, per­me­at­ing every social stratum.

I’ve got it, we’ve all got it, every­one in the US has it to some extent, I think. We’re con­stantly telling our­selves that this one more thing will do, that just a lit­tle more won’t hurt. That’s not new to the human con­di­tion — Gotama noted it 2500 years ago and called it dukkha — but it’s rare, I think, for it to be so com­pletely inte­gral to the fab­ric of a soci­ety. I don’t imag­ine such soci­eties can per­sist very long. They even­tu­ally run out of resources, and start look­ing else­where for what they think they need, such as other soci­eties’ resources. That tends not to end well.

I really don’t know what can be done about it, at least not quickly. Somewhere in the last few gen­er­a­tions, we seem to have moved from a foot­ing of mak­ing things last and of mak­ing do, to a foot­ing of want­ing things right now, and not car­ing if they aren’t usable after just a few years.

We lost our vig­i­lance, and became accli­mated to this way of life. It’s put down roots so deep that there are some who will argue — in all seri­ous­ness, and per­haps with some merit — that revers­ing our course would tank us per­ma­nently, at least economically.

In an absolute sense that wouldn’t be a bad thing, but in a rel­a­tive sense, that wouldn’t be help­ful to mil­lions, pos­si­bly bil­lions, of people.

The prob­lem should be obvi­ous. We can­not per­sist, indef­i­nitely, in mind­less, increas­ing con­sump­tion. And for now, the only thing I think we can do is be aware of it in our­selves, indi­vid­u­ally, and see if we can bring oth­ers to the same aware­ness. Perhaps influ­ence some pub­lic poli­cies. Perhaps inte­grate into our lives the passé slo­gan, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’.

We just don’t need any­where near as much as we’ve been told we do, as we believe we do. From gro­cery lines to car lots and every­where in between, that’s some­thing worth try­ing to remember.

TNH’s book (also in Kindle):

http://www.amazon.com/Savor-Mindful-Eating-Life/dp/0061697702/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1337097253&sr=8–4

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