Are You Practicing Hara Hachi Bu?

A few years ago in preparing for a lecture on diet and aging I ran across a study in National Geographic.  In it the researchers analyzed the diet and life style of three different populations where the people not only live longer lives, but longer, healthier lives.  The Italian Sardinia population, the southern Californian Seventh Day Adventist and the citizens from the Japanese island of Okinawa, who all have a large population of healthy centenarians, were part of the study.  So what common factors made these three seemingly unrelated groups connect?  All three reported putting family first (yea!), being physically active every day (good idea), staying socially engaged and eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains.  Amen to that.

Okinawans have a saying which  summarizes the philosophy underlying their healthy lifestyle – hara hachi bu. I had never heard this phrase and wondered why it is considered to promote health into the golden years.  The translation – eat until you are 80% full.  I grew up in the “clean your plate” era and so was curious about the reasoning behind this supposed wisdom.

Turns out it takes our brain 20 minutes to recognize that your stomach is full.  As a result, if you keep eating until your mind registers you are full; you will have over eaten by about 20%. If we push away the plate and stop eating when we feel we are at 80%, it is likely that your body will get exactly what it needs.  The feeling of complete satiation arrives in about 20 minutes and the risk of overeating is greatly diminished.

Many studies show that individuals or populations that routinely under eat by this subtle percentage not only maintain a better weight, but have more energy.  This makes sense.  When we eat to full capacity our stomachs are slightly overstretched which means that the next meal will require just a bit more to achieve fullness.  Continually adding a few more calories to attain satiation each day results in noticeable weight gain.  And consider that digesting food requires both biochemical and muscular activity from the body. By not continually overtaxing the metabolic system with the need to process more calories than are required, we may reserve our precious energy for things other than processing food.

Okinawans who practice hara hachi bu enjoy more than stable weight and vitality.  Almost 29% of Okinawans live to be 100 years old; which is about four times the average in western countries. They consume about 1,800 to 1,900 calories per day. Their typical body mass index (BMI) is about 18 to 22, compared to a typical BMI of 26 or 27 for adults over 60 in the United States.  And in Okinawa, Heart Disease rates are 80% lower, and stroke rates lower than in the US.  Rates of cancer are 50-80% lower – especially breast, colon, ovarian and prostate cancer. Dementia is rare.  These are impressive statistics.

Some nutritionists, aware of the consequences of routinely overeating and the benefits of slightly under eating, suggest routinely leaving 25% of your food on the plate.  This is perhaps a step in the right direction but it lacks the individualized message of hara hachi bu.  There are times when leaving behind 25% would not be appropriate. What if you skipped lunch and actually do need more dinner? Hara hachi bu asks us to become conscious about how much we eat in a more sensitive way, by tuning in to our inner gauge.

In order to begin developing our gauge, start by remembering a time of being overfull.  Thanksgiving or other holiday feasts offer this opportunity.  When we eat so much that we begin to groan or our belly sticks out or we verbalize about feeling uncomfortable, that’s 110% (or more!).  Next it is good to recall a time when the meal was finished and the feeling of hunger was still strong.  I remember eating at a very fancy, expensive restaurant where the portion sizes were barely 3 or 4 bites.  We ordered all we could afford and still left the venue looking for ice cream.  That’s 50-60% full.

On a daily basis the goal is to hit somewhere in between.  A point at which satisfaction has been reached but we are nowhere near feeling “stuffed”.   This takes some practice.  Some regular tuning in.

Make Hara Hachi Bu a regular check-in at the end of the meal.  Everyone at the table can weigh in on what percent full they are.  However, be careful not to judge.  Anyone who is at 80% isn’t the winner.  The point of the exercise is awareness; learning how to sense when we are still hungry, overfull or just right.  Becoming conscious of this important cue has benefits to reap each day, each year, each meal.  And like the Okinawans who practice this, we may be laying the groundwork for many years of vibrant health.  Have you tried it?

7 thoughts on “Are You Practicing Hara Hachi Bu?

  1. Did the study mention anything about the benefits of a seafood-rich diet? It seems like fresh seafood is readily accessible to all three of the populations in the study.

  2. I can’t cope with ditching 20-25% of the food on my plate. My parents survived the depression, and we were taught to waste nothing. Food waste is a serious issue in this country, there’s no reason to encourage it. On the other hand, if you use smaller plates, or serve yourself slightly less than you think you want it gives you a chance to think about whether or not you really need more. Plate the food in the kitchen instead of serving at the table, so if you really want more, you have to make an effort to go get it.

  3. I was recommended this web site by my cousin.
    I’m not sure whether this post is written by him as nobody else know such detailed about my difficulty. You’re amazing!

  4. I am practicing Hara Hachi bu, but I am craving.
    I had fruit earlier, then part of a salad, a few minutes ago…now I am craving a half a sandwich!!! I can’t stop thinking about the sandwich….does that ever go away?

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