Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Childhood Obesity Part Two: Apple Ecstasy and Buddhism

fat bug obesity virus
How do you feel when you look at this picture? Are you angry with the parents? Child Protective Services in Ohio recently removed a youngster from his parents just because he was enormously fat. They said letting a kid get so big was child abuse. Do you agree? Does it make you worry about your kids, or about yourself?

The single most popular post on this blog was one on Childhood Obesity (October 13, 2011).  Other posts, on mindful eating and on the Fifth Precept have had a lot of hits too. It's made me think. 

Parents want everything good for their children and love to see them learn and grow. Few parents really know how to teach their kids to eat with attention and joy, mostly because they don't know how themselves.  

Nurturing and teaching are the key responsibilities of parenting, and they often go together.  Nurturing means providing good healthy food that promotes growth and well-being. It also means avoiding using food as a bribe or love-substitute, or withholding food as a punishment.  Kids in supermarkets whine for candy. Parents say "If you're good, you can have one piece."  Perhaps if they are extremely good, they can have the whole bag.  Goodness in a child's mind means only one thing: complying with the parental will, usually by being quiet and unobtrusive.  If you are "good" you will receive highly concentrated simple and complex sugars and fats, which nature designed to feel good in the mouth.

Later, if we are lonely or bored and want love from outside ourselves, our hearts remember to connect love and comfort with sugars and fats, so we watch reruns with a soda and a bag of chips.

Sadly, we don't really taste the soda or the chips; the comfort they provide is primitive, oral, and can never be fully satisfied.

If only we could learn to savor a single chip. Turn off the TV. Hold the chip, notice its texture. Enjoy its colors and how it is translucent to bright light. Smell it slowly, becoming aware of the complexities there. Snap it in half and listen to the sound. Put the half on your tongue and notice again. But wait, the sensations are likely to shift. Slowly chew and then swallow, mentally following the chip all the way down. Describe the experience to yourself, select words that might communicate the experience to others.

Sound silly?  Maybe, but I remember a monk leading a group of students though an exercise like that as we held and touched and sniffed the big red apples he'd brought us. For nearly an hour. When he finally let us take a bite, it was apple ecstasy for me.  I'll never forget that apple from 40 years ago.

Maybe you've taken wine tasking courses.  They follow most of the steps I suggested for the potato chip, and they have certainly enhanced my appreciation.  Sadly, I often go though the attention exercise only with the first sight and smell and  and sip, then drink the rest of the glass mindlessly.

There are games parents can use to teach kids mindful eating, far better than lectures about "slow down and enjoy your food,"  but the best teaching is through example. 

Dieting is dumb and doesn't work long term. It's about restricting and limiting ourselves temporarily, usually so we can be thinner and more attractive. It makes our favorite foods our enemy. When we've learned that food is a substitute for love, food-as-enemy is a recipe for craziness.  Mindful eating can lead to moderate eating with great pleasure, and we can model it for our kids.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Childhood Obesity and Buddhism: The Fifth Precept

Effects of Childhood Obesity (Center for Disease Control and Prevention)

Childhood obesity has both immediate and long-term effects on health and well-being.
Immediate Health Effects:
  • Obese youth are more likely to have risk factors for cardiovascular disease, such as high cholesterol or high blood pressure. In a population-based sample of 5- to 17-year-olds, 70% of obese youth had at least one risk factor for cardiovascular disease.
  • Obese adolescents are more likely to have prediabetes, a condition in which blood glucose levels indicate a high risk for development of diabetes.
  • Children and adolescents who are obese are at greater risk for bone and joint problems, sleep apnea, and social and psychological problems such as stigmatization and poor self-esteem.
Long-term health effects:
  • Children and adolescents who are obese are likely to be obese as adults and are therefore more at risk for adult health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, several types of cancer, and osteoarthritis.  One study showed that children who became obese as early as age 2 were more likely to be obese as adults.
  • Overweight and obesity are associated with increased risk for many types of cancer, including cancer of the breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, pancreas, gall bladder, thyroid, ovary, cervix, and prostate, as well as multiple myeloma and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

The Practical Buddhist Responds

The problem arises from wealth and a lack of mindfulness. 

Adults counsel and explain but do not model or become examples of moderation. Children's diets are sometimes restricted or limited, but we don't teach them the joy of eating that can be found in paying attention. In our society only wine experts and chefs savor and thoroughly describe what they are tasting and experiencing. We also set up food as part of a reward system.  "Eat your peas and you can have desert" teaches kids "Yes, peas are disagreeable and unpleasant, but to get you to eat them I will gratify you with food full of fats and sugars."  Why not attend to the pea?  Create a story of it's planting and growth, and how it was protected and nurtured by nature and farmer alike. Enjoy its shape and color. Play with your food a bit and see how many peas will balance on the blade of a table knife. Tell the story of the princess and the pea, or of Jack and his Beanstalk (close enough.)  Don't teach that peas are ugly but necessary.  Food should never be associated with reward or punishment.

I once counseled aides at an eldercare center to be sure to offer residents their glasses before eating so they could see the food clearly, then discuss the food admiringly to see what memories this might trigger. While they are learning to respect and delight in ordinary food, it's OK for kids to smell it carefully and even touch it gently, and experiment with various utensils and unexpected combinations.

Most childhood obesity comes from compulsive eating by kids who confuse food with love or at least relief, together with poor teaching and the abundance of cheap, concentrated food.

Here's a simple interpretation of the Fifth Precept or Training by Thich Nath Hanh (www.plumvillage.org)

Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful consumption, I am committed to cultivate good health, both physical and mental, for myself, my family, and my society by practising mindful eating, drinking, and consuming. I am committed to ingest only items that preserve peace, well-being, and joy in my body, in my consciousness, and in the collective body and consciousness of my family and society. I am determined not to use alcohol or any other intoxicant or to ingest foods or other items that contain toxins, such as certain TV programs, magazines, books, films, and conversations. I am aware that to damage my body or my consciousness with these poisons is to betray my ancestors, my parents, my society, and future generations. I will work to transform violence, fear, anger, and confusion in myself and in society by practising a diet for myself and for society. I understand that a proper diet is crucial for self-transformation and for the transformation of society.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Weight Loss the Buddhist Way: Mindfulness

Obesity Epidemic "Astronomical"

The prognosis for the nation is bad and getting worse as obesity takes its toll on the health of adults and children alike.

By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Feature

One of the biggest health stories of the year has been the rise in obesity among both adults and children in the U.S. We've all heard so much about the "obesity epidemic" that it's easy to think the story is being blown out of proportion. After all, people putting on a few pounds may not seem to warrant the proclamation of a national emergency.

The Practical Buddhist Responds

The Buddha lived in a royal palace surrounded by the finest of everything, including limitless food. Later he adopted the life of extreme ascetics who allowed themselves only the bare minimum for survival. At last he found Middle Way of Moderation. The Middle Way respects our bodies and our minds and avoids the excesses of starvation diets or compulsive gorging.

Following the Middle Way means focusing, but not on scales or sizes or the shedding pounds. It means attending to health, treasuring our miraculous  bodies, and treating them with tender care. If we are moderate in diet and in exercise, we will weigh what we should weigh and look as we should look, barring serious illness.

Why is moderation so hard? Some otherwise bright and disciplined people seem unable to attain it. The answer may lie in a combination of circumstance and training. We are surrounded by opportunities to eat without attention, mindfulness, or moderation.  Even now in our economic crisis, most can buy as much fat and starch and salt as they want. We have been taught that food is for comfort and entertainment, not for celebration of sharing. Sitting alone watching a TV romance, your companions a jumbo bag of chips and a sugary soda, you are in a drugged state of no-attention and no-awareness.  It masks pain and delays engagement with life.

A first step toward diet health is attention. Become aware of everything you put in your mouth. What is the consistency, the taste, the texture? How would you describe it to someone unfamiliar with it? Until eating with attention becomes habit, you could write your food (and drink, even water) in a special diary or notebook, along with your impressions and observations about it.  The vast majority of people find that careful and consistent attention to their food and drink will bring better order and moderation in eating and drinking.

A second step, after beginning to be aware of your food and drink, is to notice the triggers to consumption.  Many eat when anxious, for example. With practice you can learn better ways to manage your nervousness and fear, such as brief, focused meditation or even skillful breathing.

Meantime, know that you are here and now, and that whether fat or thin, there is nothing inherently wrong with you.  As you begin to seek the Middle Way and develop your skills in paying attention, the weight is likely to take care of itself.