Many of us grew up with this framework for eating. And sadly, it has led to many problems. We've learned to ignore our bodies' signals. We eat when we’re not hungry, and we don’t stop until we’re completely and unpleasantly stuffed. Or, we wait to eat until we’re so hungry that we could (and frequently do) eat everything in sight. So, how do we break this habit? Re-learn what hunger feels like, and understand the difference between being satisfied (satiety) and being full.
On the island of Okinawa in Japan, longevity is the norm. Many people live healthy lives well into their 90s and early 100s. This could partly be attributed to their admirable eating habits, an important one being "hara hachi bu”, or eating only until they feel 80% full.
These people eat slowly, taking their time, enjoying their meals. By consuming their food more slowly, their stomachs are able to register the volume of food they have eaten, and send their brains the signal that it’s time to stop. When you gulp your food down, your stomach fills up so fast your brain hasn’t yet gotten the message that you’re full – by the time you feel full, you’ve already completely stuffed yourself.
There is no guarantee you’ll live as long as an Okinawan, but if you follow the tips below, you’ll be on your way to living a healthier life:
1. Before you sit down to eat, rate your level of hunger on a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being starving, and 10 being absolutely stuffed). You want to start eating when you’re about a 3 (slightly hungry). Hopefully, you’re eating something every 2 to 3 hours. As long as you’re not eating especially large portions, you’ll find yourself slightly hungry when it’s time for your next snack or meal. The wonderful thing about eating frequently is that you shouldn’t find yourself “starving” and wanting to eat everything in sight.
2. As you eat, be aware of how you feel. Appreciate the subtlety of your body’s signals. Are you satisfied but not yet full? Feeling full is a very obvious, noticeable sensation, but feeling satisfied is rather subtle. You want to stop when you’re at about a 7 on the hunger scale (satisfied, not full). Put the fork down and move away. It may be necessary for you to learn the difference between emotional hunger and physical hunger. Emotional hunger is hard to satisfy, and it often accompanies feelings of sadness or anxiety.
3. Slow down. It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive the message that your stomach is full. The more slowly you eat, the sooner you’ll recognize the message to stop eating before overdoing it. If you wolf your food down, you run the risk of eating too much and stopping too late.
4. Wait at least 10 minutes before going back for seconds. This gives your body time to process how full you are and allows your brain to send the “I’ve had enough" signal. More times than not, you’ll realize you really don’t want or need that second portion after the wait, thus saving you calories.
5. Limit distractions when you’re eating. Create a soothing environment and be mindful of what you’re doing and feeling. Mealtime should be pleasurable!