Friday, March 5, 2010

Eating as a Sustainable Act

In January of 2009, my husband and I returned from a 4-month trip to Australia and New Zealand, where, in spite of the fact that we ate and drank our way across both land masses, we hiked our way as well, and therefore returned strong and fit.

Through a succession of colds and flu, and getting out of the habit of walking (which is our primary form of exercise), yet eating and drinking as if we were still the intrepid hikers, I put on a good 10 pounds over the course of the year. Peter put on at least that much.

January 2010 comes along and it’s diet time.

Now, I’ve done this before. After we got married, we turned into fat honeymooners that required a year’s worth of Weight Watchers to take off the 25 or so pounds we acquired through our love-food fest. And a few years ago, we did the South Beach diet to take off that biennial creeping 10. So I know diets “work” — in the short run. But in the long run, they don’t work — at least in the sense of keeping the biennial 10 at bay.

So this year I decided to do it differently. Yes, I did Phase 1 of South Beach religiously for three weeks (for Peter and me, it is a very easy and rewarding diet), which dropped a good six pounds right there. But I did something else as well – I decided that eating sustainably is as important as any other sustainable act of living.

Why do I need to consume more food than I need? On occasion (and I mean, occasion, like a birthday) that’s fine — in the same way that I allow myself to buy strawberries occasionally in winter. But day in and day out, why do I have to eat more food than my body calls out for? I’m against over-consuming things like plastics and gasoline. Why is food different?

I don’t think it is. I realize that the second pork chop that I might forego is not going to end up on the plate of some starving child in China (as my mother tried to get me to believe when I was younger). But I am part of a country that over-consumes food—and the truth is that if we stopped doing that, we’d not only be healthier, but we’d be able to farm our land in more sustainable ways. For instance, if we just limited the amount of beef we eat (not even give it up altogether) we could substantially cut back on the 96 million methane-producing cattle we currently graze. We’d not only use that land more productively, but put a substantial dent in greenhouse gasses as well. (Check out the Meatless Monday movement here.)

So I started paying attention to what and how much I eat. (I meditate and a book on mindful eating by Jan Chozen Bays from my friend Shell was extremely helpful here.) I started taking what seemed like a reasonable portion of food—I’m not into starvation after all — and eating it slowly and mindfully, letting my brain register my satiety. I found that I usually didn’t need or want seconds, and if I did, I took seconds of vegetables.

I also started paying attention to my hunger, and like everything else in life, I noticed that it changes. HUNGER, I have learned, is not some static state THAT MUST BE SATISFIED. For example, I work at home, so I’m just steps from my fridge. For this experiment, when the usual 10:30 a.m. hunger pangs came around, instead of responding to them, I chose instead to watch them. And sometimes (not always) they went away. They didn’t really need attending to. I didn’t have to eat.

I also started noticing the emotions attached to my hunger. One time I was out doing errands and when I felt a little bit of hunger, I noticed that I also felt panic. “What are you going to eat? When? How?” my mind started hissing with conspiratorial urgency. But instead of reacting to the panic, I just watched it—and saw both the panic and the hunger dissipate under inspection.

The upshot is this: I’ve lost 10 pounds since January 4 and – more important – I eat a lot less. Not because I am on a diet. I’m just a mindful eater now. I’m mindful of food’s impact on me and I’m mindful of my impact as an eater on this Earth. And you know what? I feel good about both.


  1. Love it. You are an inspiration, and thank you for your thoughts on eating mindfully. It's something I've read about, but have chosen lately not to put into practice. Time to start. And time, maybe, to give the South Beach a try - not for a lifetime, just for a few weeks. You can do anything for three weeks, right?

    P.S. I love the idea of eating sustainably, i.e. not taking more than I need.

  2. Yeah, I find that thinking about it as an ethical issue helps take it out of the realm of the personal (as in, I'm denying myself something). I've always thought that what I ate was a political act. Why not how much I eat as well?

  3. This is really profound. I have heard, and written, about mindful eating for years, but never gotten beyond "pay attention to what you're eating, don't eat while reading, watching TV, or standing in front of the open fridge." Your description of what mindful eating actually feels like, how the practice actually works is, in itself, a perfect demonstration of the act of being mindful. It is the other side of the coin of compulsive eating to fulfill emotional hunger. Paying attention in this way is truly "food for thought."