During our 2-week stay in Osaka, we had the opportunity to share a few meals with my husband’s former colleagues from when he was working in Japan. While the conversation was often a mix of Japanese and English, I found that these outings were the perfect opportunity to learn about the subtleties of Japanese culture through the simple act of observation. When Japanese co-workers get together after work, the typical routine involves catching up over drinks (typically beer or shochu) and sharing multiple family-style dishes.
I noticed right away that while everyone seemed to be enjoying the delicious food, by the time we were wrapping up dinner, there was quite a bit of food remaining on the table. As I looked around the table at our next dinner outing later that same week, I saw that most people enjoyed a little bit of each dish but rarely went back for seconds. I asked my husband why these middle-aged men with seemingly large appetites were eating rather modestly. His response was “hara hachi bu.” This Japanese saying translates to, “eating until you are 80% full.”
“Hara hachi bu” (腹八分) originates in Confucian teaching but has been practiced by Okinawans in Japan. It just so happens that Okinawans also have the world’s highest proportion of centenarians, at approximately 50 per 100,000 people. While western foods have made their way into the Okinawan diet, up until the 1960s, Okinawans consumed a predominately plant-based diet, rich in green and yellow vegetables, purple sweet potatoes, tofu, seaweed and legumes. In the typical Okinawan diet, rice, wheat, fish and meat are consumed far less compared to the average mainland Japanese diet.
While my husband’s colleagues are not from Okinawa, this notion of eating until you are 80% full is a common practice throughout Japan. Great tasting food is highly valued in Japan, but the focus leans heavily towards quality versus quantity. While Japanese people have healthy appetites, over-eating to the point of feeling uncomfortably full is not something you’re likely to come across in Japan.
This idea of eating until you’re 80% full sounds like a good rule of thumb in order to avoid overeating, but how exactly are you supposed to know when you’re 80% full? Well, it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to register that it is “full” and does not need more food. Some say that you should eat half of what you typically eat, wait 20 minutes, check and see how your stomach feels and then decide if you should continue eating. Unfortunately this “wait 20 minutes and see” approach isn’t always practical. Perhaps a more realistic approach is to eat slowly and consciously to the point where you’re no longer hungry. The subtle difference lies in thinking about eating to a point of no longer feeling hunger versus thinking about eating to a point of fullness.
So how is are you supposed to eat “slowly and consciously” to reach that sweet spot of not feeling hungry? Don’t overthink it, but when you’re trying to figure out how much to eat, consider these steps below to help you eat more slowly and bring awareness to your hunger level.
- Sit down.
- Turn off the TV, set aside your phone, and close your laptop.
- Smell your food. Take a second to register what you smell.
- Take small bites and chew your food thoroughly. Some say the magic number is 32 chews per bit. Don’t worry about a number. Just chew your food until it has fully liquefied.
- While chewing, take a few extra seconds to register what you’re tasting. What new flavors do you taste? What is the texture like?
Don’t forget to be patient with yourself if you decide to retrain your hunger gauge. Some say that it takes about 20 meals for our stomach muscles to reset in order to more accurately register when we’re no longer hungry. Also, while it may go against those childhood rules, remember that it’s okay to not eat everything on your plate. Save today’s leftovers for a meal tomorrow.