Hara Hachi Bu and You!

Although what you eat is important to losing fat, how you eat is equally, if not more, important. In The 5 Habits of Highly Effective Eating, the first habit is “eat slowly to 80% full”.  If you apply these two “anchor” habits—regardless of where you’re eating, what you’re eating, or whomever you’re eating with—you can have fat-loss success.  I cover eating slowly here.  This article is focused on the latter of the two—eating to 80% full.  (Note: until you’ve developed some level of mastery with eating slowly, 80% fullness will be difficult to gauge.)

You’re often tricked by our environment into thinking you’re hungry when you’re often not.  You drive by a bakery, smell the fresh-baked goodness, and think you’re hungry.  When watching television (but not while eating), a commercial comes on for your [not even remotely] favorite restaurant and you think you’re hungry.  You look at our watch, see that it’s noon, and think you’re hungry.

Real hunger isn’t determined or characterized by a store, commercial, or timepiece.  Real hunger is the actual physical need for food.

Signs of actual hunger are:

  • Stomach pangs or growling
  • Emptiness in the stomach
  • Irritability (a.k.a. “hangry”)
  • Headache
  • Low energy or fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating

These signs will be different for each of us, but through slow, mindful (no distractions) eating, you’ll better be able to tune into what your body is saying and not your environment.

How do you know what 80% feels like?  First, understand 80% full is more of a concept than a hard and fast rule.  One person’s 80% may be another one’s 60% . . . or 100%.

Have you ever been completely stuffed?  How about completely ravenous?  Well, 80% falls somewhere between the two.  When you’re 80% full, or perhaps no longer hungry, stop eating.  Signs might include:

  • Alertness
  • A fuller sensation in your stomach
  • Good energy
  • A desire to no longer eat
  • Contentment
  • No more cravings

Here’s a game you can play.  Let’s call it the Hunger Game.  (No, Katniss, you won’t be required to participate in a compulsory deathmatch.)

For the next day or two, pay attention to how you feel the few hours following your meals.  Ultimately, if you’ve eaten to 80% full you’ll be hungry every 2-4 hours.

  • Assuming you’ve eaten slowly, in the hour following your meal you should feel quite satisfied. If you’ve eaten fast, you may still be a little hungry.  Allow your body the 20 minutes it takes to register fullness before you decide to eat more.
  • Two hours after eating you should begin to feel like you could eat something, but your hunger should not be overwhelming.
  • At hour three to four, you’ll begin feeling like it’s time to have another meal. On a scale of 1 (completely satisfied) and 10 (totally ravenous), you should feel like a 7 or 8.
  • If after four hours you are still not hungry, you probably ate too much. Eat a little less at your next meal.  If after four hours you’re ravenous, you’ve waited too long to eat.  If you find yourself so hungry you could eat a horse . . . and its rider, you will typically eat things a lot less nutritious than an actual horse.

Contrary to some of the messages out there, when you’re losing weight, you will be hungry.  You should be hungry.  If you’re feeling low-level hunger throughout the day, embrace it.  You are in a great state for fat loss!

So why, despite eating wherever, whatever, with whomever, is eating to 80% full so important?  Well, in a nutshell, you’ll consume fewer calories.  Oh, and because Okinawans do.  (Huh?!)

As of the earliest parts of the 21st century, the Okinawans of Japan were the only culture to have a self-imposed habit of energy restriction.  They refer to it as hara hachi bu, which when translated into English from Japanese means “Eat until you are eight parts full”.  This sounds like eat to 80% to me.

Okinawans eat an average of 1,800 to 1,900 calories per day which results in an average body mass index (BMI) of 18 to 22.  Americans on the other hand consume, well, a lot more, resulting in a BMI of approximately 28 to 29.  Okinawa also has the greatest proportion of centenarians.  (This may also be because they walk everywhere and consume a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, seafood, and green tea instead of highly-processed foods.  But I’ll just say it’s because they eat to eight parts full.)

Another great thing about this habit is you can start practicing it at your very next meal, regardless of what you’ve planned.  So, at your next meal, eat until 80% full.  Here are six things to DO today.  Pick one or two of them.

  1. Think, “Not until full, but no longer hungry.” But, even before you begin eating, are you even hungry?  Review the above hunger cues.
  2. Slow down. Give your brain time to register fullness.
  3. Make hara hachi bu your mantra. A Japanese proverb says, “Eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor.”
  4. Observe your hunger. If you’re physically hungry an hour after eating your last meal, you probably ate too little.  If after four hours you’re still not hungry, you probably ate too much.
  5. Every meal is another opportunity to practice. If you “fail” at a meal, remember you’ll have another chance to do better in a few hours!
  6. Finally, above all, be aware. Is your body or your surroundings telling you you’re hungry?