When author and Zen priest Dan Zigmond mentions that he has written a book about the Buddha’s diet, he is often met with disbelief.
“A common reaction was that Buddha must have had a terrible diet, because he looked so overweight in all of the statues that everyone sees of him,” said Zigmond, who along with Tara Cottrell co-authored the new book Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind. “If you go into Chinese restaurants and lots of places in the West, there are statues that show this overweight figure. But it’s a Western misunderstanding. In countries where that image comes from—mostly China and Japan—people understand that the Buddha is someone else entirely.”
Zigmond, who is also a Tricycle contributing editor, and Cottrell make it a point to bring up the Buddha’s slim appearance in their book because they discovered that almost all of his beliefs about food and dieting have held up to scientific inquiry.
“I’ve always been interested in food; I like to cook, and I’m a vegetarian,” Zigmond said. In 2014, Zigmond, who is the Director of Analytics at Facebook, briefly left the tech world to work for a startup devoted to nutrition and health. “I was surrounded by people who had made food and health their whole career. One colleague shared with me a study that looked at mice that had been restricted to eating only during certain hours each day. [Eating this way] had provided some protection against all of the unhealthy consequences of a bad diet.”
Reading the study was a revelation to Zigmond—and made him recall his time living in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand more than 20 years earlier when he was volunteering at a nearby refugee camp. “The monks had similar rules about when they could eat,” Zigmond said. “Like a lot of people, I was not very happy with my diet or my state of health, so I decided to give it a try. And I really loved this way of eating.”
At the monastery, Zigmond learned that the Buddha had only one steadfast rule about eating in his teachings.
“It is kind of a strange rule,” Zigmond admitted. “The monks basically ate whatever they wanted, which was whatever the local people gave them on their begging rounds, but only within certain hours.” Traditionally, monks eat only between dawn and noon and fast for the rest of the day.
That approach to eating was consistent with the Buddha’s other philosophies. “It was a Middle Way, so that on the one hand, his followers wouldn’t be too focused on food, and on the other hand, it would allow them to sustain themselves and nurture their bodies.”
Upon further research, Zigmond realized that it made scientific sense to restrict eating to only about 10 to 12 hours a day. “If you think back to what it was like to be a human being in the earlier stages in our evolution, our digestive systems and our metabolisms didn’t have to work all the time because food wasn’t available all of the time,” he noted. “There’s no reason for our metabolism to work 24/7 or even 16 to 18 hours a day. Because until this age of refrigeration and food on demand, there’s just no way we could have eaten at all hours of the day and night.”
But of course, we do now live in a culture that seems to revolve around food. Zigmond says that completely altering your eating schedule is a possible, albeit daunting, task. “I do think that like so many things in life, it just takes practice,” he said. “It was liberating in a way, to follow that rule and just focus on other things besides food.”
Zigmond’s Tips for Changing Your Approach to Food
Still feel like changing your eating habits is a bit out of reach? Here are Zigmond’s suggestions to get started:
It’s important to work your way down to a meal schedule that suits you. “Start by cutting out eating very late at night,” Zigmond said. “Then gradually begin reducing so that you are only eating nine hours a day, which is what I do now.”
Weigh yourself regularly
This tip might make many of you flinch a little. “In a way, we hope that weighing yourself regularly makes it less important rather than more important,” Zigmond said. “Your weight does fluctuate quite a bit depending on the day or even on the weather. If you weigh yourself only occasionally it’s very hard to get an idea of what’s happening. By making it a part of your routine you can get a sense of the larger trend.”
Adjust your schedule accordingly
Don’t let meetings or vacations throw you off. “If for some reason you have an early flight to catch and have to eat earlier than normal, just have your last meal earlier as well,” Zigmond recommended.
Allow yourself a cheat day
Remember, it’s not cheating if it’s part of your diet plan. “We do recommend that you allow yourself a cheat day, a day where you don’t follow a strict schedule,” Zigmond said. “There’s even reason to believe that is healthy to your body because it prevents your metabolism from adjusting too much to a restrictive way of eating.”
Don’t be intimidated
Starting something new is often the hardest part of creating lasting change. “Like many things, it probably sounds harder than it is,” Zigmond said. “When you start to make these adjustments you realize that you don’t have to eat so many times.”
Buddha’s Diet: The Ancient Art of Losing Weight Without Losing Your Mind is available from Running Press on Sept. 6.