Okinawa Island, located approximately 400 miles south of the Japanese mainland is reportedly home to more centenarians than anywhere else in the world. Unsurprisingly this impressive display of longevity has spawned great curiosity as other cultures, particularly here in the west, seek to unlock the secret to their ageing prowess.
Whilst the western media loves to reduce the elixir of life to one attention-grabbing headline the reality is the secret to the Okinawans resilient life-span is going to be multi-faceted. No doubt things like regular physical exercise, whole foods, low stress levels and strong social connections play a part. However, in this article I want to focus on another valuable lesson we can pull from their culture, the art of eating less.
The Okinawans live by a mantra, Hara Hachi Bu which loosely translated means eat only until you are 80% full. Compare this to the western world where many of us surpass full capacity several times a day and you can instantly see a fundamental difference in attitude.
Eating less is probably the least glamorous weight loss advice around. Yet in a super-size society which prefers to focus on a villainous nutrient or heroic supplement this elephant in the room deserves a lot more attention.
Whilst our metabolism is a complex and dynamic system with numerous inputs affecting how fast or slow it operates you cannot escape the laws of thermodynamics which dictate that to lose weight the volume of energy you expend must exceed the volume of energy you consume, otherwise known as negative energy balance.
Since physical activity comprises a reasonably modest portion of our daily metabolic rate the easiest way to achieve this negative energy balance is unsurprisingly to simply consume less.
This clearly makes the Okinawans philosophy a good one for managing weight but Hara Hachi Bu aside there are plenty of other ways we can rein-in the energy density of our diets starting with the three listed below.
This is a weight-loss no brainer. By replacing liquid calories with water we can make significant inroads into reducing the energy density of our diets. A single cup of orange juice contains over 100 calories derived almost entirely from sugar which can be drunk in a matter of seconds. At a rate of three glasses per day this would equate to more than 2000 calories a week, an extra days worth of food for most of us. The picture does not get any prettier with other juices, soft drinks, energy drinks, smoothies, milkshakes and alcoholic beverages.
The Delboeuf Illusion is an optical trick which causes us to misjudge the size of identical circles when they are surrounded by larger circles of varying size. Discovered by Joseph Remi Leopold Delboeuf this illusion translated onto our dinner plates means the same portion of food looks smaller and less satisfying when served on a larger dish. Couple this with the fact our plates have grown by nearly 25% since the 1900s and you can see why we are subconsciously expanding our portion size with increasingly large piles of food.
By storing big plates away for special occasions and using smaller plates for the bulk of our day to day meals we can effortlessly reduce the number of calories we ingest without feeling hard-done by in the process.
When we write down everything we eat and drink a level of accountability is automatically introduced to our decision-making process making it less likely we will overeat. It is a powerful phenomenon and a good reality-check for many. Beyond portion control a food journal provides an excellent biofeedback tool allowing us to successfully identify foods which make us feel sluggish and lethargic versus foods which makes us feel alert and energised. Using this information we can ensure we spend more time eating food which empowers our body and less time consuming food which drains it.
We all have our own eating habits, favourite foods and meal patterns so there are going to be many more ways you can practice the art of eating less. Bottom line though, if you need to lose weight then consuming fewer calories (whilst still getting lots of nutrition) is something you will need to consider. Beyond losing weight there are numerous studies on small animals such as mice which indicate calorie restriction can extend lifespan. Whether or not this translates to larger species like us humans is as yet unclear but it certainly doesn’t seem to be hurting the Okinawans.
Food Rules by Michael Pollan
The Okinawa Program by Bradley WIllcox, Craig Willcox and Makoto Suzuki