Can Buddhism health you lose weight? I’m doing a little self experiment at the moment, and the answer seems to be yes, yes, yes! More details below.
It sounds like a joke, right? Everyone knows that the Buddha was rotund fellow. Nope! In fact the Buddha was lean and healthy. The chubby guy you see at Chinese restaurants is actually Bùdài, the so-called Laughing Buddha. He is a mythical “future Buddha,” not the Buddha that lived 2500 years ago in India. Our Buddha was concerned about health in addition to enlightenment, and he had a lot to say on the matter. For example, here he talks about eating mindfully. Here he talks about minimizing suffering with what we choose to eat. And here he talks about the benefits of rice porridge!
Normally I restrict this blog to the suttas, but I just can’t resist sharing a little personal experience. In graduate school, I started putting on weight. By the time I finished school I was a depressing 50 pounds overweight. It seemed like every few months I was investing in pants with larger and larger waistlines.
In 2010 I decided enough was enough and cleaned up my eating. I focused on fresh, unprocessed food. I ate more mindfully. I got more exercise. I lost 30 pounds and felt a lot better. I bought new clothes. I halved my number of chins. I went to the public pool senza intense shame.
But there I stopped. If you are doing the math, that’s still 20 pounds over an ideal weight. Not bad, but not great. Four years later I began to think I needed to do something more. Clean just wasn’t cutting it. But what? Raw? Soylent? Ray Peat? Fasting?
Then I read a study that jogged my mind about a sutta. This study showed that people eating twice a day lost more weight than people eating throughout the day. This was true even when they ate the same amount of calories. As you may know, Buddhist monks only eat before noon. They are allowed to eat 2 meals, but the Buddha actually recommends one. You may think that the reasons are spiritual: say, fasting as an ascetic practice. But this is not it at all. The Buddha does not recommend austerities. I used to think it was just to give the laity a break. They might get sick of monks and nuns begging morning, noon, and night. But the actual reason is health! This is what the Buddha said about the matter in the Kitagiri Sutta (MN 70):
Monks! Do not eat in the evening. I never eat in the evening, and I am in excellent health. I rarely get sick. I’m not overweight. Indeed, I’m strong and comfortable. You too should avoid eating in the evening. Then you too can be healthy, light, strong, and comfortable.
One of the monks, Udayin objected (Latukikopama Sutta, MN 66).
I was so depressed when you said we shouldn’t eat in the evening. I thought, “Supper is the best meal of the day. And now I have to give it up!”
Eventually, though, he came around, and decided eating in the morning only was best. He had once been known as a fat monk but restraint improved his health.
So, I decided I would give it a try. There were plenty of reasons to think this wouldn’t work. Some monks and nuns are quite thin, but others are quite chubby. Plus, I have actually refrained from eating after noon many times before, usually while on retreat. I never lost any weight at all. My last retreat, when I left seclusion, I was talking to someone on a work retreat at the same center. He mentioned that it was easier to not eat after noon on a meditation retreat than a work retreat. Of course! Working all day builds up a hunger. Sitting all day does not. But in normal life this wouldn’t be the case.
My initial n=1 results have been encouraging. I’ve been steadily losing .5 pounds a day for two weeks. I really haven’t been hungry. Yesterday I drank tea and chatted with my kids while they chowed down on burgers, fries, and a shake (celebration after the last day of school). It’s much easier just having the rule “Don’t Eat After Lunch” than it is to follow a rule like “Eat Modestly Several Times a Day”. Much easier. The body adjusts pretty quickly to the new way of things.
Of course, it might be a mirage. Two weeks isn’t very long. But at the moment I’m enjoying the discovery that even the Buddha’s practical advice was amazingly wise! I promise to report back soon with updates. And if you give it a try yourself, I’d love to hear how it goes!