Diets are bad medicine. If a doctor prescribed a drug that worked less than 10% of time and made more people feel worse than better, it would be malpractice to prescribe it. This is the case for weight loss programs. Nonetheless, in denial of the facts, dieters are seduced out of $60 billion per year to fund America’s weight loss industry. Experts and non-experts alike tell us, often for a hefty fee, to eat more fiber, cut down on sugar, eat less gluten, eat more vegetables, drink more water, reduce calorie intake, or eat less and more often. If you want to look further, you can also find diet pills aplenty which will “help you look and feel your best in no time.” Scores of weight-loss hopefuls ingest appetite suppressants such as Liporexall and Phenedrine or drugs that help them burn fat such as DecaSlim and Lipofuze. And of course, if that doesn’t work, we all need to exercise more. Again, program abound including those that build muscle, burn fat, challenge your limits, or can be done during television commercials with almost no effort at all required.
What’s the catch? Why don’t these programs work? Do people need more discipline or summon more resolve and greater commitment? I don’t think so! In fact, blaming a person for not losing weight is akin to telling a person that it’s their fault when a doctor’s prescription doesn’t make them feel better.
The question of how to lose weight is simple to ask; the answers are plentiful and logical. So it would seem that success should readily follow. Instead, people try to lose weight and fail, or repeatedly lose weight and then gain it back in a process referred to as yo-yo dieting. However, after studying people’s experiences with diets, it is clear that the diet problem cannot simply be solved by logical action—eat less, exercise more. Any scientist worth her salt would clearly see that what we need is a new paradigm not a new mousetrap!
Fortunately, the Zen practice of meditating on koans accurately describes dieter’s actual experience. Koans, which derive from the Zen tradition, are questions, riddles, or paradoxes presented by a master to a student to perplex his or her rational mind and dislodge it from its habitual assumptions and thought patterns. (Sounds like the weight-loss question to me.) The student could ponder a koan for months or even years, bringing answers to the master, who evaluates them. Unless the student has broken free from habitual patterns of thinking, the master refuses to accept the answer and sends the student away to contemplate further (Dieters should find this more than familiar.) For example, one traditional koan asks the student, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” If the student answers logically, such as saying, “The sound is a kind of a whoosh that occurs when the hand moves through the air,” the master might reply, “Go back and meditate for six more months.” However, if the student becomes frustrated and blurts out something like, “I don’t know,” the master might say, “Good, you’re on your way.” This is because an admission of not knowing can become the first step in shifting the student’s mindset, or as one Zen master said, “You have to empty your cup before you can refill it.”
The question of how to lose weight is one of the great American koans. Many people have meditated on it for years, desperate to determine the answer. The unsuspecting dieter comes up with a plan, such as a fortified resolve to eat less and exercise more, but eventually returns to the bathroom scale, mirror, or feelings of lack of self-worth with a sense of failure. Then, an imaginary master takes out a teaching stick, whacks the dieter on the shoulder, and sends the dieter back to try again. Because although the efforts made may have been based on a slightly new approach, the dieter’s fundamental way of thinking about the question had not changed. The dieter tries harder, just as students do with koans, but the dieter’s basic assumptions don’t change, and the same cycle will be repeated.
Perhaps the most basic of all assumptions made by dieters is that they actually need to diet. While the American culture bombards us with the message that we need to lose weight, the truth is that many of us, especially women, need to either stop dieting or reassess our motivations for dieting. Consider the following facts: while about 25 percent of women are overweight, 75 percent say they are overweight and feel ashamed of their “failure” to change. Young girls between age eleven and seventeen are more afraid of becoming fat than they are of nuclear war, cancer, or losing their parents.
Ninety percent of high school girls diet regularly, even though less than 20 percent are over the weight recommended by the standard height-weight charts. Negative body image is associated with suicide for girls but not for boys. Fifty percent of girls between age nine and ten feel better about themselves if they are dieting. The most common behavior that leads to an eating disorder is dieting. About eight million Americans have eating disorders, seven million of them women. Seventy-five percent of women choose an ideal body size that is 10 to 20 percent underweight. And women’s magazines have ten times more articles and ads promoting weight loss than men’s magazines.
While messages about the harm caused by obesity and the need to lose weight are almost ever-present, messages that speak to the pain, shame, and dangers of dieting are relatively rare. The basic assumption that people need to be fed (pardon the pun) the message that they need to lose weight may seem straightforward, but may also perpetrate a kind of illness of its own.
In short, the very notion that we need to try to lose weight is worthy of serious challenge and critique.
Continue on to Zen and the Art of Weight Loss: Part 2
Stay tuned for Zen and the Art of Weight-Loss part II for more answers to the weight loss koan.
 Janet Melcher and Gerald J. Bostwick, Jr., “The Obese Client: Myths, Facts, Assessment, and Intervention,” Health and Social Work 23, no. 3 (1998): 195-202.
 Monica Persson, “Fat and Feminist Large Women’s Health Experiences,” Feminist Women’s Health Center (1996) accessed October 31, 2011, http://www.fwhc.org/health/fatfem.htm.
 Danice K. Eaton, Richard Lowry, Nancy D. Brener, Deborah A. Galuska, and Alex E. Crosby, “Associations of Body Mass Index and Perceived Weight with Suicide Ideation and Suicide Attempts among U.S. High School Students,” Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine 159, no. 6 (2005): 513-19.
 L.M. Mellin, C.E. Irwin, and S. Scully, “Disordered eating characteristics in girls: A survey of middle-class children,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association. (1992): 851-53.
 Catherine M. Shisslak, Marjorie Crago, and Linda S. Estes, “The Spectrum of Eating Disturbances,” International Journal of Eating Disorders 18, no. 3 (1995): 209-219.
 “Eating Order Statistics,” South Carolina Department of Mental Health, accessed October 31, 2011, http://www.state.sc.us/dmh/anorexia/statistics.htm.
 Hilary Rowland, “Obsessed with Thin: Has the Media Gone Too Far?” Urbanette Magazine, accessed October 31, 2011, http://www.urbanette.com/obsessed-with-thin-media-gone-too-far/.
 A.E. Andersen and L. DiDomenico “Diet vs. Shape Content of Popular Male and Female Magazines: A dose-response relationship to the incidence of eating disorders?” International Journal of Eating Disorders 11 (1992): 238-87.