Savor, a Zen Master’s Recipe for Mindful Eating and Living

Michael Pollan’s insightful and simply-stated Food Rules have become well-known, especially his easy-to-comprehend mantra: “Eat Food, Real Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants.”  One of his rules that comes to my mind, on nearly a daily basis, is a rule which helps me to avoid overeating: “If You’re Not Hungry Enough to Eat an Apple, Then You’re Probably Not Hungry [emphasis added].”  This rule also prompts me to eat an apple instead of some other type of snack.

In Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life (Harper One, An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York, 2011), Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk who has published more than 100 books,  demonstrates mindfulness, the ancient Buddhist practice of “being fully present in each moment,” by showing how to eat an apple, with the mind aware of each bite, savoring the taste and nourishment of this nutritious food.  The mindful eating of an apple is not simply a quick snack to quiet a grumbling stomach, but “something more complex, something part of a greater whole.”  Nhat Hanh’s meditation on eating an apple begins by advising the eater to first give the apple a smile and, slowly, take a bite, and chew it:

“Be aware of your in-breath and out-breath a few times to help yourself concentrate solely on eating the apple:  what it feels like in your mouth; what it tastes like; what it’s like to chew and swallow it.  There is nothing else filling your mind as you chew . . . . There is just the apple.  When you chew, know what you are chewing.  Chew slowly and completely, twenty to thirty times for each bite.  Chew consciously, savoring the taste of the apple and its nourishment, immersing yourself in the experience 100 percent.  This way, you really appreciate the apple as it is.  And as you become fully aware of eating the apple, you also become fully aware of the present moment.  You become fully engaged in the here and now.  Living in the moment, you can really receive what the apple offers you, and you become more alive.”

This mindful eating of an apple is an experience where all qualities of the apple are savored: its sweetness, aroma, freshness, juiciness, and crispness.  Furthermore, apples are “good for our health as well,” and Savor cites the familiar adage, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away,”  and research which “shows that eating apples can help prevent heart disease because the fiber and antioxidants they contain can prevent cholesterol buildup in the blood vessels of the heart.”  The fiber in apples can also help move waste through the intestines “which can help lower the risk of problems such as irritable bowel syndrome,” and apples are “also packed with potassium,” which can help keep blood pressure under control.  Organic apples are preferable because the apple skin, which is “rich in phytochemicals, special plant compounds that may fight chronic disease,” should be eaten.  Harvard Magazine reports that Harvard researchers have found that rutin, a substance contained in apples, “has potent anticlotting powers that could help prevent heart attack and stroke.”

Nhat Hanh, with his co-author, Dr. Lilian Cheung, a nutritionist, lecturer and researcher at the Harvard University School of Public Health, in Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, address the problem of obesity that is spreading across the globe with more than a billion people worldwide, overweight.   According to a recent report of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the obesity rate in the United States is a startling percentage of the population. By state, obesity prevalence ranged from 20.7% in Colorado to 34.9% in Mississippi in 2011. 39 states had “obesity prevalence” of 25% or more; 12 of these states had a prevalence of 30% or more: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia.

Nhat Hanh and Dr. Lilian Cheung make a strong case that “mindless eating” is a driver of weight gain and obesity, while acknowledging that eating less and exercising more is “easier said than done.”  By combining Buddhist philosophy with the science of nutrition, they provide a way to understand our bodies and mind in order to counteract the “societal forces that drive us to eat more and move less.”  They are not afraid to critique the food industry which “wants consumers to consume” and uses advertising to promote a culture of constant snacking, drinking and eating.  They note the research in neuroscience and psychology, cited in Dr. David A. Kessler’s  The End of Overeating, Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite (Rodale, Distributed to the trade by Macmillan, New York, 2009), which established that foods high in fat, salt and sugar alter that brain’s chemistry, stimulating release of dopamine, which is associated with feelings of pleasure.

Savor offers an approach to weight loss and healthy eating, which is fresh, spirited and mindful of the miracle of food.  Hanh and Cheung smartly weave together scientific and spiritual recipes for weight loss and creating a healthy lifestyle.  Their focus in not simply on calorie counting or exercise regimens, but also on creating awareness around eating.  The book’s three parts, (1) A Buddhist Perspective on Weight Control, (2) Mindful Action Plans and (3) Individual and Collective Effort are filled with meditations, poems, and exercises to bring one into more awareness.

The book’s second part, Mindful Action Plan, includes three chapters: Mindful Eating, Mindful Moving, and Mindful Living Plan, which explain step-by-step how to identify goals and monitor progress.  Mindful Eating sets out the basics of healthy eating in simple language: “Choose foods and drinks that are good for our health and good for the planet, in the modest portions that will help us control our weight.”   To pick the healthiest sources of protein, both for the individual’s own welfare and for that of the planet, the reader is advised to choose plant-based proteins from nuts, legumes, seeds, and beans, and “If you do have to consume animal foods, choose fish or chicken.”  Red meat and dairy products also “take a terrible toll on the environment,” and if you have to eat red meat, the authors advise that “it’s best to limit yourself to no more than once or twice a week.”   They note that “Some scientists have estimated that it takes one hundred times as much water to produce a kilogram of beef as it does to produce a kilogram of protein from grain [emphasis added].”   According to information from the National Geographic’s Freshwater Initiative, one pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water to produce.

It is likely that Nhat Hanh and Dr. Cheung would strongly approve of Michael Pollan’s specific food rules concerning the consumption of meat: Rule 26, “Treat Meat as a Flavoring or Special Occasion Food;”  Rule 27, “Eating What Stands on One Leg [Mushrooms and Plant Foods] is Better than Eating What Stands on Two Legs [Fowl], Which Is Better Than Eating What Stands on Four Legs [Cows, Pigs, and other Mammals];” and Rule 30, “Eat Animals That Have Themselves Eaten Well.”  Further, they and Mr. Pollan would certainly be aghast at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) caving into pressure from the industrial meat industry to retract a plug for meatless Mondays in the agency’s cafeterias.  The New York Times recently reported that the USDA had joined with  the thousands of corporate cafeterias, restaurants and schools, which have embraced the idea of skipping meat on Mondays in favor of vegetarian options (an initiative of the non-profit Monday Campaign Inc., and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health), by including in its “Greening Headquarters Update” this plug: “One simple way to reduce your environmental impact while dining at our cafeterias is to participate in the ‘Meatless Monday’ initiative.”   Responding to “outraged Twitter messages by livestock producers and at least one member of Congress,” the newspaper reported that this plug for “Meatless Monday” had been removed and a statement issued that “U.S.D.A. does not endorse Meatless Monday.”

Savor includes familiar nutritional advice, noting that you “need only follow a few fundamental food guidelines to maintain health and well-being,” and includes a helpful reference to the dietary guidelines developed by experts in the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Helath.  Somewhat surprising to this reviewer, who has been roasting up and enjoying the Adirondack Red Potatoes, which have been part of his CSA farm share from the biodynamic Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook (Columbia County, NY), is the advice to “eat potatoes sparingly, if at all”:
“You may notice one vegetable that is conspicuously absent from the list of rainbow-colored vegetables:  the potato.  While multiple studies have shown the benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, potatoes do not seem to play a role in these observed protective effects.  That’s because potatoes- whether their skins are brown, red, yellow, or purple – have more in common with white bread and white rice than they do with broccoli or bell peppers.  Potatoes contain rapidly digested starch, and large amounts of it.
Eating a large portion of such starch foods can send your blood sugar on a roller coaster.  First, as your body quickly converts the starch to glucose and absorbs the glucose from the gut, blood-sugar levels rise high;  your pancreas pumps out insulin to rapidly clear the glucose from the blood, but it may overshoot things a bit, causing your blood sugar to dip a bit lower.  This sequence of events may lead you to feel hungry again, not long after finishing your meal.  Over time, eating diets high in such rapidly digested starchy foods may increase your risk of heart disease and diabetes, and there is evidence that limiting these types of foods in your diet may help with weight loss.”

The book’s chapter on Mindful Moving builds on the authors’ view that regular exercise is “close to a magic potion” and that “being active is one of life’s miracles.”  They note that exercise not only helps prevent weight gain and obesity, but also lowers the risk of many chronic conditions including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, unhealthy cholesterol, certain cancers and osteoporosis.   In addition, exercise has been shown “to boost mood, improve quality of life, and help people better deal with life’s stresses.”  Savor even includes an Appendix D which lists more than 50 creative alternatives to television watching.

In the book’s chapter, Mindful Living Plan, Nhat Hanh and Dr. Cheung emphasize that “Alone, we will quickly succumb to our usual habits and lose our mindfulness practice,” and they offer ways to gain “social support important to your weight loss and weight maintenance.”   Special praise is given for CSA (community supported agriculture) farms:  “Apart from the exchange of money for fresh, locally grown, often organic products, the CSA model builds important relationships between the communities, the food, and the environment.”

Sara Worden, the CSA Coordinator of The Full Plate Farm Collective in Ithaca (Tompkins County), New York, and a contributor to this website, notes that in one of her favorite books by Thich Nhat Hanh, Old Path White Clouds, Walking in the Footsteps of the Buddha (Parallax Press, Berkeley, California, 1991), Nhat Hanh includes the story of the first teaching of the Buddha, the morning after attaining enlightenment,  to the village children underneath the Bodi tree:
“A person who practices mindfulness can see things in the tangerine that others are unable to see. An aware person can see the tangerine tree, the tangerine blossom in the spring, the sunlight and the rain, which nourished the tangerine. Looking deeply, one can see ten thousand things, which have made the tangerine possible. Looking at a tangerine a person who practices awareness can see all the wonders of the universe and how all things interact with one another. The path I have found is the path of living each hour of the day in awareness, mind and body always dwelling in the present moment. The opposite is to live in forgetfulness. If we live in forgetfulness, we do not know that we are alive. We do not fully experience life because our mind and body are not dwelling in the here and now. ”
Sara asks “Is it any coincidence that the first teaching that the Buddha made after becoming enlightened refers to the most basic act of being human – our need to eat?”  Further, this first teaching of the Buddha explains why the artwork on the cover of Savor shows a slice of tangerine instead of an apple!

On a trip to California before the 2012 upstate New York growing season began, Sara visited the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and described how it inspired her work as a CSA coordinator:
“This sanctuary explores the interaction of Buddhism and farming alongside the shores of the Pacific Ocean. Meandering through the farm we felt the stillness and peace of those committed to the spiritual act of land-based labor.  Statues of Buddha adorned the fields and greenhouses.  We observed the meditative quality that the farmers exuded while planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and pruning the orchard.  We could only imagine the dining hall and the attention that would be given to the act of eating.
Since entering the small family farming world, I’ve thought a lot about food – both growing it and eating it. And how being involved in food production is such a time consuming vocation that its often hard to find time to sit down and enjoy the harvest.  It is only on rare occasions when the leisure of cooking, eating slowly, and digesting in a restful environment is accessible to the people who grow, harvest, and serve our food.  At the start of the growing season, I had the farmers over for dinner. It was a challenge for them to make the time to come, but I think that once they arrived they liked it. Being forced by social graces allowed them the pleasure to sit, pause, talk, and stay for dessert and taste the tangerine.”

In Savor, Mindful Eating, Mindful Life, Nhat Hanh and Dr. Cheung make the significant point that as humans, “We have a finite amount of energy to spend every day before becoming exhausted.”  Sara’s hosting a dinner for hardworking people “who grow, harvest, and serve our food” was energy well-spent, and a demonstration of “mindfulness” which, in the words of Nhat Hanh “helps you use your energy wisely, spending it on situations, people and causes that bring you the most joy, meaning and peace.”

[Frank W. Barrie, 9/5/12]

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