The average American gains five pounds over the holiday period, and enters the new year resolving to get back in shape as quickly as possible. But while strict detoxes work temporarily, sustainable slimness is all about adopting a new mindset. We could all learn a thing or two about reaching a healthy weight from the residents of a Japanese archipelago called Okinawa, who love to eat but never need to diet.
Okinawa is one of the world’s “Blue Zones”—a community that lives to age 100 at 10 times the rate of the general population. This impressive longevity record isn’t just a case of good genes; Okinawans prioritize their health in ways big and small thanks to a culture that innately encourages and facilitates living well.
The people of Okinawa have close social groups called moais, and get out of bed each morning with a clear sense of purpose, known as an ikigai. Activity and movement are ingrained in everyday life (no expensive gym classes in their neck of the woods) and they have a dining rule which stops them from ever having to resort to quick fix detoxes or diets.
It’s called hara hachi bu, and it means “stop eating when you’re 80% full.” Many factors can influence how much food we consume, from the size of our plate to the social setting we’re dining in, which is why eating mindfully is so important. By focusing their attention on the meal at hand, and stopping before they feel full, Okinawan adults eat an average of 1,900 calories per day. It’s a steady caloric intake rather than the feast-famine cycle many Americans find themselves in, and it allows them to fully enjoy their food without having to worry about significant weight gain.
In the book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, Dan Buettner, researcher and founder of the Blue Zones concept, interviews Dr. Brian Wansink—an expert on the concept of intuitive, mindful eating. “There is a significant calorie gap between when an American says, ‘I’m full’ and an Okinawan says, ‘I’m no longer hungry.’ We gain weight insidiously, not stuffing ourselves, but eating a little bit too much each day—mindlessly,” Wansink explains.
So how do you put hara hachi bu into practice? Turn off the TV and fully absorb the smell, taste and texture of the food. Eat slowly and chew each mouthful properly—it takes time for your stomach to register that it’s full, and if you devour your meal speedily you’re not allowing for that process, making it much more likely you’ll overeat to the point of feeling uncomfortable. Take brief breaks and see how you feel. If you’re still hungry you can always eat more, but once you’re stuffed you just have to be patient and wait for the unpleasant sensation to pass.