Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book review: 'Savor' offers useful perspective on weight control

By Bill Williams

Few people have done more to promote the spread of Buddhism in the West than Thich Nhat Hanh,‭ ‬the monk from Vietnam who lives in France and conducts well-attended retreats around the world.

Nhat Hanh has written more than‭ ‬100‭ ‬books,‭ ‬most of them revolving around the theme of living mindfully in the moment.‭ ‬Now he has joined with co-author Lilian Cheung,‭ ‬a lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health,‭ ‬to apply that wisdom to diet and nutrition.

Although‭ ‬Savor‭ ‬does not break new ground,‭ ‬it may prove useful by showing people who struggle with weight gain how the principles of mindfulness can help.

Weight-loss programs,‭ ‬diet books and diet foods are a multi-billion-dollar industry.‭ ‬The authors offer a concise overview of the factors that influence consumption,‭ ‬noting that people are‭ “‬surrounded by societal forces that drive us to eat more and move less.‭” ‬The result is weight gain,‭ ‬obesity,‭ ‬and myriad health and emotional problems.

Food companies spend more on advertising than any other industry segment except cars.‭ ‬This bombardment has created a‭ “‬culture of constant snacking,‭ ‬drinking and eating,‭” ‬with the result that the percentage of Americans who are overweight or obese is steadily growing.

Savor‭ ‬explains how a core Buddhist teaching known as the Four Noble Truths applies to eating.

The first truth holds that life involves suffering.‭ ‬In this case,‭ ‬being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer,‭ ‬diabetes,‭ ‬heart disease and premature death.‭ ‬The second truth is that craving,‭ ‬such as a craving for the pleasure found in food and drink,‭ ‬causes suffering.‭ ‬The third truth is that we can address suffering,‭ ‬in this instance by believing we can change negative habits.‭ ‬And the fourth truth lists steps to end suffering,‭ ‬such as setting realistic goals,‭ ‬finding a supportive network of friends,‭ ‬and eating mindfully.

Savor‭ ‬encourages readers to eat slowly to appreciate the gift of nutritious food.‭ ‬The authors suggest trying it with an apple,‭ ‬enjoying each bite,‭ “‬immersing yourself in the experience‭ ‬100‭ ‬percent.‭”

“We are propelled,‭” ‬the book says,‭ “‬by the fast pace of high-tech living‭ – ‬high-speed Internet,‭ ‬e-mails,‭ ‬instant messages and cell phones‭ – ‬and the expectation that we are always on call,‭ ‬always ready to respond instantly to any message we get.‭”

Nhat Hanh and Cheung recommend a vegetarian or vegan diet,‭ ‬suggesting that readers reduce,‭ ‬if not eliminate,‭ ‬their consumption of meat,‭ ‬fish,‭ ‬chicken and dairy products,‭ ‬including eggs,‭ ‬milk and cheese.‭ ‬They note the staggering environmental toll of meat production,‭ ‬including the release of methane tied to global warming,‭ ‬the destruction of rain forests to expand grain production for farm animals,‭ ‬and the pollution of water and air from animal waste.‭

Vegetarians and vegans,‭ ‬the book says,‭ ‬tend to be healthier and weigh less than those who consume animal products high in unhealthy fat.

Much of the text covers familiar ground.‭ ‬The authors recommend that people consume more fruits and vegetables,‭ ‬and cover at least half their plates with fruits or vegetables at each meal.

They stress the importance of regular exercise,‭ ‬calling it‭ “‬about as close to a magic potion as you can get.‭” ‬Not surprisingly,‭ ‬they note the negative impact of television,‭ ‬tying it to lack of exercise and obesity.‭ ‬Children spend more time watching TV and playing on computers than they do in school.

Unfortunately,‭ ‬the book includes a disturbing Buddhist parable about a young couple crossing the desert with their‭ ‬3-year-old son.‭ ‬When they run out of food,‭ ‬they decide to eat their son to survive.‭ ‬The story is figuratively supposed to illustrate the suffering caused by mindless consumption.‭ ‬The authors concede that the story‭ “‬may sound unimaginable,‭ ‬cruel and totally unacceptable.‭” ‬Then why include such an offensive tale,‭ ‬which adds nothing to the book and likely will repel many readers‭?

Other than that,‭ ‬Savor‭ ‬is a helpful guide for anyone who cares about diet and weight,‭ ‬with many tips about using mindfulness to stick to a healthy diet.‭ ‬

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford,‭ ‬Conn.,‭ ‬and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant.‭ ‬He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Savor:‭ ‬Mindful Eating,‭ ‬Mindful Life,‭ ‬by Thich Nhat Hanh and Lilian Cheung‭; ‬HarperOne‭; ‬292‭ ‬pp.‭; ‬$25.99.

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