When it comes to health and longevity, Japan could teach us all a thing or two. Living over 100 isn’t uncommon in the island nation, and whilst there are countless articles and books about what you can do to emulate the Japanese centenarians, we’d like to have a look at something extremely specific: “hara, hachi, bu,” a Confucius teaching that advocates to only eat until you are 80% full.
The key to a longer life
Hara Hachi Bu has been touted as the “secret” to Japanese longevity, with nutritionists, scientists and everyone interested in health and food swearing this could be the answer to a longer, healthier life.
Why is stopping to eat before you’re full such a big deal? Well, according to two nutritionists quoted in the Hindustan Times, “Overeating or being full means that your digestive process takes a long time to process the food. This accelerates cellular oxidation, which in turn ages you faster.”
Of course, it sounds like a good idea to not overindulge and it kind of makes sense that consistently eating just a tiny bit less than you want would be beneficial. But the science goes even further. “Okinawans, who have been following this principle for centuries, have the lowest levels of free radicals in their blood. Low level of radicals in your blood means lower risk of cardiovascular diseases, cancer and other old age related diseases.”
What it means in practice
In Japan, food is something you sit down to eat. Using chopsticks also means it’s a lot harder to gulf down whatever is in front of you in 5 minutes or less. Because it takes longer to eat and you are – supposedly – eating in a calm-ish environment, your brain has time to process what you’re doing. It takes up to half an hour for your brain to catch up with your belly and send the “full” signal. Longer meals, eating slowly and concentrating on what you’re doing gives your brain and body more time to recognize when you’ve had enough.
Japanese food is perfect for this style of eating. We wouldn’t recommend you try eating pizza with chopsticks or that you take over 30 minutes to consume your burger. However, having multiple small plates, Japanese or tapas style, definitely helps. It slows down the process of eating and stops you from overindulging.
“Eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor”
The people of Okinawa, a southern island, follow the teaching of this Japanese proverb (reported in “The Three pillars of Zen: teaching, practice, and enlightenment,” by Philip Kapleau) and alongside the phrase “hara hachi bun me,” (“belly 80 percent full” or “eat until you are 8 parts full”), they seem to be eating themselves to a long and healthy life.
Okinawa is the one place where “calorie restriction” is still an integral part of the culture. There is no fad, diet or media pressure involved in the choice to follow hara hachi bu. It has been going on for centuries and no, there is no calorie-counting involved. “Being in tune with their bodies allows them to know when to stop,” explains the Very Well Health website.
There is more to it
Before any of us decide that all we need to do to reach 100 is to reduce our calorie intake – probably not the most realistic idea just before the Holidays – it is important to understand that Okinawans’ calorie-restrictive diet is only partly responsible for their longevity.
Free from processed food, high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fish, the Okinawan diet includes every food groups, with a preference for fresh, local ingredients. It really shouldn’t be groundbreaking, but as we’ve all seemed to forget about what we really need and instead overindulge, the Okinawan diet is a good reminder that making positive changes to benefit our health doesn’t necessarily need any gimmicks or fancy diets. All we really need is to listen to our bodies, the good timing and moderation naturally follow.