Wise Eating: A Reflection on Buddhist Living


The following reflection originally appeared in the newsletter I sent out on May 7th, 2024. 

Feel free to read just the bold words and skip the rest, maybe even only reading the sections that interest you. 


Introduction to Wise Eating

One question eternally on my mind is how to bring Buddhist practice alive in my daily life in a way that’s embodied, impactful, and sensitive to modern life while also maintaining integrity to the original teachings.

A big part of the inquiry has been the Buddhist Precepts.  In turn, over the next year, I’ll be using the Buddha’s list of the 10 precepts* as a means to explore what it is to have a wise relationship to living beings, possessions, sex, communication, intoxicants, eating, entertainment, fashion, sleep, and money — a sort of top ten hits list of important human topics.  I find this sort of inquiry into “wise relationship” considerably more useful than following a “rule,” and actually more in alignment with the spirit of the tradition.

Today, I’ll begin with #6 on eating.

My understanding of wise eating is to eat in a balanced way, to eat foods that nourish oneself while minimizing harm to the planet and all its inhabitants, and to do all of this without adding stress, anxiety, shame, craving, or aversion.  This process involves a degree of moderation, curiosity, gratitude, and, of course, mindfulness!

The following reflection will explore that definition part by part, beginning with some of my own follies!


Eating in a Balanced Way

About one month into my two-year retreat in Myanmar, I was staying at a monastery in the peak of mango season — my favorite fruit!  One morning, someone dropped at my door a bag filled with seven, massive, ripe, and juicy mangos.  On that particular day, I was feeling a little stimulation-starved, restless, wanting novelty, and the bag of mangos provided just that.

Even though I had just eaten breakfast and wasn’t even particularly hungry, I proceeded to eat all seven mangos in one sitting.  By the third or fourth mango, my stomach hurt from overeating.  And yet, some compulsion in me just couldn’t stop. I hardly even paused to take a breath before finishing all the mangos and feeling ill from over-consumption.  I had to lie down for the next hour or two just to recover.

This behavior was nothing new — for as long as I could remember, in times of stress or boredom, I would often go to binge eating for respite (among other coping strategies!).  More often than not, it felt like I didn’t have control. Fortunately, on the backbone of one month of intensive meditation retreat, this time I saw so lucidly the force of craving at work & precisely how suffering was unfolding in my being in real-time.

While I’ve certainly overeaten since that morning almost exactly 10 years ago, I don’t believe I’ve eaten to that extreme ever since.  When I go to a restaurant buffet, a boring social gathering with bowls of yummy snacks, or am alone at night feeling a little off and the urge comes to have a snack, maybe I’ll eat something in these scenarios, but at some point, I just stop myself before I feel gross.  This happens not so much out of a forceful restraint but as a deep inner knowing that I don’t want to make myself suffer.

As best I can tell, what happened to me that April morning of 2014 was that all that mindfulness allowed me to clearly see the unnecessary suffering that habit was causing, and allowed something deep within to be released.

However, finding balance is still a work in progress.  I’m still prone to eating a few-too-many dried mangos from time to time — while this is better than a few too many candy bars, there’s still some craving in this mind.  And so I keep practicing, keep looking closely, and trust that as the needle has slowly tipped over the years to balance, it will continue to do so.

While much of my history has been working against overeating, many people have to work with the habit of undereating, or perhaps ping-ponging between the extremes.  Culturally, undereating seems to happen more often with women, who are more strongly conditioned to look like the skinny model on the billboard.  But it can also happen to any gender, age, or cultural background.

On a deeper level, the question of balanced eating isn’t just overeating and undereating — simply google “eating disorders” and there is a whole list of challenges that people work with.  There are also health and digestive issues that can make it all a lot more complicated.  We start we are.

Add it all together, what I am calling balance is to understand what is “enough” to be nourished and eating just that amount.  However, rather than using that definition as a judging stick for our inner perfectionist, we can begin to love the inquiry of “what is enough?” and “how do I do that?”  We can allow ourselves to grow into the answers naturally, similar to how a child grows into a mature adult.

Basically, in wise eating, use mindfulness to notice where we are out of balance and look closely at that.  We start experimenting.  We collect data.  And, armed with the understanding that balance is possible, we apply a mountain of patience in heading that direction.


Does Yummy Food Bring Us Happiness?

Of course, tasty food is very nice — no one disputes that.  However, if we pay close attention, we’ll also notice that the pleasure offered is quite fleeting.  As an example, a behavior I’ve noticed in others and myself is putting one bite of food into my mouth before the prior is finished.  When I’ve mindfully explored why that is in myself, various superficial answers arise, but on the deeper layer, it’s because the pleasure has worn off, and so the mind wants to quickly put the next bite in to get more pleasure.

Beyond the fleetingness, I remember once doing an experiment where I curiously & mindfully ate a piece of plain white bread next to some fancy chocolate.  I was somewhat surprised to discover I enjoyed them the same!  On a similar note, when I was 24, I was intrigued by why I had such a distaste for olives, so I bought a jar of pungent green olives and endeavored to eat them mindfully until I learned to love them. It only took about six olives, and to this day, I don’t have a problem with them.

These experiments illustrate a basic Buddhist teaching: true happiness comes more from our quality of mind than from anything external, like the taste of the food.  

To be clear — there’s nothing bad or wrong with yummy food, and it’s not like we have to pretend that it’s otherwise.  Personally, when I have a choice, I choose to make or eat something delicious, but I am also very adaptable, and when there is a choice between something nourishing, like a side salad, and something that tastes more yummy, like french fries, wisdom invariably has me choose the former.

Anyhow, there is something deeper offered by food than taste, which brings us to:


What Is Nourishing Food For Oneself?

To offer a simple definition, food is nourishing when it provides us with sufficient energy and healthfulness to attend to our life — it makes us feel good, not just for a few seconds but for longer durations.

The most salient way to learn what is nourishing is to pay attention & experiment.

For example, I grew up eating fast food at least weekly, and into my early adulthood, I only intensified that habit.  However, I started working at a Natural Foods Co-op in my late teens, and mostly out of convenience, I would often eat from the salad bar on my lunch break.  However, after about two years there, I went to McDonalds on my lunch break one day, ordered the usual, and when I walked back into work, my gut sank and felt…. gross!  In that moment, I deeply realized the suffering caused by eating fast food and the desire for it disappeared entirely.  I haven’t eaten it since.

Note that I didn’t need a visit with a nutritionist or to read a bunch of books to figure out that fast food didn’t nourish me — paying attention revealed the answer.

While I’ve been a vegetarian (and now vegan) for most of my adult life, when I was a monk, I had no control over my diet.  As it was a meat-heavy culture, a non-meat diet was essentially a low-nutrition diet.  In turn, continuing to be a vegetarian led me to becoming iron deficient; so weak I would get winded walking up a single flight of stairs.  In response, while I could have just stubbornly marched on with my ideals, I tried various eating experiments, and once I started eating meat, I regained my energy.  This was also a profound lesson in letting go of my attachment to habits, but that’s another story!

Anyhow, again, the working principle is that if we’re mindful & committed to not suffering, we’ll make the adjustments necessary.  Over the years, I’ve continued to pay attention, making little adjustments here and there, around portion sizes, times of day, specific foods, undertaking “food experiments,” and on and on.  But this doesn’t have a forceful energy, it’s just being curious, collecting data, and adjusting naturally.

As with everything, we don’t need to be perfect about this or forever optimize to be a little healthier or have a little more energy.  This is its own craving/aversion trap.  However, when we can’t walk up a flight of stairs normally, something is probably off.  Wisdom understands what is “enough.”

Of course, it’s helpful to have some education about health and wellness, like nutrition information about how to eat healthily, such as eating real, foods like fruits, veggies, meats, grains, nuts, or legumes, as opposed to processed and refined foods.

However, I am not a nutritionist, so I’ll save the dietary input and instead continue to wave the flag of paying attention & experimenting!  It’s possible to feel nourished.


What Is Nourishing Food For The Planet?

When I was in college, I read a book that looked more closely at our food systems; among other things, it brought attention to factory farming.  Upon learning about this, I literally felt sick inside.  Intuitively, I understood that even if I couldn’t “see” the impact of my eating choices in the same way I could feel the impact of eating certain foods, that didn’t mean that my eating choices didn’t matter.  With every little choice, I contribute to global well-being or suffering.

At some point, I became a vegetarian because that felt right to me, but it took me another decade to become a vegan, even though that aligned more with my values, mostly because I didn’t want to give up cheese.  Ironically, when I finally did, I didn’t really miss cheese at all!

While I’m using examples of eating animals, I’m also not trying to convince anyone to give up meat or cheese or anything else.  If you contemplate it, plants are also living things — there is no escaping taking life.  In turn, the invocation isn’t to adopt a certain diet, but rather to become conscious of the impacts of our eating choices, whether that relates to sustainability, climate change, poison-free farming, or farming in an ethical way.

As we become more conscious, we develop more inner impetus to truly live our values.  Part of the reason I had a whole section on exploring the pleasure of food is that I’ve observed people can be so quick to toss away our values in the name of a tastier dish.

Similarly, one trap I’ve fallen into is fear around money. Nowadays, I do most of my shopping at a local Natural Foods Co-op, largely because I trust their product sourcing.  I avoided this for a long time as my primary grocery store due to financial fears, but what I’ve realized is that I generally just don’t buy things that are particularly expensive, and even if I may pay a bit more for my “real foods,” it feels worth it to me to support sustainable food systems and sacrifice a little money for things like entertainment that I care less about.

To emphasize this again, wisdom is not perfectionism.  Even the stuff I’ve shared above, I don’t do 100% of the way, and I’m okay with that.  With each passing year, the needle tips more and more in a wholesome direction, and so when I splurge on something a little expensive or eat something that isn’t completely aligned with my values or healthfulness, I grant myself a lot of grace.  I keep paying attention and keep learning.  I trust the unfolding.

Add all this together, I am advocating for educating yourself to a degree that feels healthy & realistic, and having the courage and integrity to act on what you believe to be right — balancing your own needs with the world’s, but also to let go of all the self-shaming, anxiety, and need for the one right way to be.


Our Inner Relationship to Eating

Of course, it’s nice to eat mindfully, paying attention to the textures and tastes of our food — this can offer more delight, appreciation, and a way to sustain mindful presence.

However, from the perspective of wisdom, much more important is noticing your inner relationship to food.  The Buddha roughly divided these sorts of inquiries into noticing what’s happening before, during, and after eating.

Being mindful before eating means taking a close look at what’s motivating us to eat.  While sometimes wisdom motivates us to eat because we’re hungry or could use some nourishment, other times, like in my mango story, we’re motivated to eat by emotional drives.  In my experience, emotional eating is usually done to escape something uncomfortable, but can also be the craving for pleasure, social approval, beauty, or any number of other things.

My teacher instructed me to notice the difference between being hungry and wanting to eat.  As I’ve spent over three years at Buddhist monasteries where one doesn’t eat after midday, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to explore hunger.  For the first many retreats, the hunger and the wanting to eat were inseparable.  I would become agitated when hungry, and end up fantasizing for hours and hours about food, as well as using other distraction strategies to cover up the hunger.  At some point, I started to see the distinction clearly and became more mindfully intimate & equanimous with the raw feeling of hunger.

In my daily life, where I eat three meals a day, the impact of this exploration has been more clearly seeing the motivators of my eating urges, which in turn grants more capacity to wisely eat when appropriate, to release emotional cravings, and to maintain contented cheerfulness when hungry but not able to eat yet.

The next time you feel full and want to keep eating, or when it’s an odd time to eat and you have an urge for a snack, simply ask yourself, “what’s motivating this urge?”  See if you can identify the motivator without shame, judgment, or frustration.  Love the inquiry!

Being mindful during eating is largely about noticing what’s arising in you as you eat.  On one retreat I attended, a teacher once playfully said before lunch, “make sure to eat your food and not your thoughts.”  When we are just churning thoughts, we’re not actually present with our food (our or mind).

Similarly, this constant thinking leads to the autopilot-experience of rushing through the meal, putting one bite into the mouth before the prior is finished.  Of course, on top of thoughts and rushing, all sorts of other emotions, reactions, and impulses could also happen while eating.

One practice I love and often do for breakfast is to eat silently with no media, and between each bite of food, I put down the utensil or food and allow a short gap before picking it back up and taking the next bite.  You might be surprised how quickly this gets annoying, the mind jumps into thinking, or wants to grab the next bite.  It takes a lot of mindfulness to sustain this practice for a whole meal; and, in turn, by curiously paying attention to what happens internally, wisdom begins to arise!

Being mindful after eating is noticing the impact of the eating on our body and mind.  This might include as much what we ate as how we ate.  I don’t think it’s necessary to turn this into some big formal investigation, but if we stay curious and gently notice how we feel after eating, we’ll get some incredible data that can fuel our future choices.

Of course, exploring our inner relationship to food could be a lot vaster than just looking at before, during and after, like also exploring our conditioning around food, the general thoughts we have around food, how we feel at the grocery store, our relationship to digestive issues, how we relate to “new” foods/tastes, or any number of other things.

But, again, let us stop here and continue to wave the flag of paying curiously paying attention!



There is a lot more that I could say about eating, including the ritual around food**, the communal possibilities of eating, cultivating gratitude, and many more interesting food experiments, among other things.

However, I mostly just wish to say it’s possible to have an uncomplicated, life-affirming, clean, and wise relationship to food — where we can appreciate it, allow it to nourish us while being friendly to the planet, and to do all this without craving, anxiety, shame, and expectations layered on top.  Food can very much bring us more in touch with our humanity & spirituality and thrust us into a deeper inner integrity.  Wisdom is what makes this possible.

If all of this feels like too much information, just try mindful paying attention — as the Buddha says, this is the direct path to awakening.



* Traditionally, the five precepts are practiced by all non-monastic Buddhists at all times, the eight precepts by non-monastics on new & full moons, as well as on visits to a monastery, the ten precepts by novice monks and nuns, and the more than 200 precepts by fully-ordained monks and nuns.  In Zen Buddhism, there are 16 precepts for non-monastic Buddhists instead of the first five.  In my opinion, getting lost in these lists is to miss the point — at the core, can you cultivate a wise relationship with your heart-mind and your world?  That’s the purpose of all of the precepts.

** Here are two of my favorite Buddhist meal blessings, to be read before meals


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