The program Dixie Evatt attended was founded at SUNY by physician Lisa Kaufmann after she began to despair of finding any conventional methods that could help her patients lose weight. Like many practitioners, she had seen too many patients try the standard dieting approaches, do okay for a while, and then gain back all the weight they’d lost.
“For most people,” says Kaufmann, “the underlying emotional and behavioral issues are not addressed by conventional diets. So eventually they start eating again and regain everything, plus another five or ten pounds.”
Kaufmann got the idea for her program several years ago when she was attending a meditation retreat and noticed that no one in the room was overweight. “I realized that as people gain awareness, they are less likely to have compulsive habits,” she says. It made her wonder whether people who wanted to lose weight would be more successful if they simply learned how to pay close attention to what they were eating.
In creating her four-year-old program, Kaufmann drew on the Buddhist techniques that inspired it, which aim to cultivate a be-here-now attentiveness to everything we do, including the act of eating. The program teaches becoming aware of many things that we do automatically–which clearly runs against the grain of current American dietary habits. Surrounded as we are by fast food, quick snacks, and accelerating time pressures, we as a nation are eating faster, eating more, and gaining weight at an unprecedented pace.
But the very thing that makes mindful eating so alien to so many Americans–that is, deliberately slowing the pace of eating–helps explain why it’s gaining adherents. “A big reason so many Americans are so fat is because we’ve lost touch with the ceremony of eating,” says Deborah Kesten, a nutritionist who teaches mindful eating and wrote The Healing Secrets of Food and Feeding the Body, Nourishing the Soul. Some of the growing number of other books that make mindful eating an element of weight loss include Eat More, Weigh Less, by cardiologist Dean Ornish, The Zen of Eating, Art of the Inner Meal, Eating Mindfully, and the aptly titled When You Eat at the Refrigerator, Pull Up a Chair.
Kesten has done a study comparing people who follow her program and concentrate on the pleasure of eating to those who multitask during meals. “We’ve found that people who eat mindfully–with gratitude and positive feelings–are more likely to be normal weight.” In Kaufmann’s class, students meet once a week for ten weeks. The lesson plan is pretty simple. “People can eat anything they want,” she says, “but they have to eat it with complete awareness. No television, no radio, no newspaper.” If you know you can eat all you want, she adds, you tend not to eat as much–there’s always tomorrow.