Hara Hachi Bu And Dessert, Too

As a card-carrying, life-long member of the Clean Plate club, the Japanese practice of “hara hachi bu” caught my attention. The phrase translates to “eat until you are 80 percent full.” It is simple advice first offered centuries ago by that wise sage, Confucius. Of course, that was long before super-sized servings, all-you-can-eat-buffets, and family-sized packaged Doritos made the scene.

For myself, and probably much of America, “hara hachi bu” isn’t only a foreign term, it’s a foreign concept. Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, is a Cornell University professor who studies consumer behavior and nutritional science. His research found that when Parisians were quizzed as to how they know when to quit eating, they reported that they usually stop when they no longer feel hungry.  Americans, on the other hand, cited a number of ways they know when to quit such as, when they run out of a beverage, when their plate is empty, or when the television show they’re watching is over.  Yipes. It doesn’t look good for the home team, especially given our current weight crisis with 63 percent of adults overweight and/or obese.

In fairness, though, it’s not entirely our fault. Without our recognizing it what we eat and the way we eat has changed dramatically in our lifetime—the last few decades, in fact. With the prevalence of two-income families, we eat out much more than before. As much as half our food dollars goes to away-from-home meals. Coupled that with a huge increase in the amount of food that we’re served today as opposed to two decades ago, and you have portion distortion, a recipe for sure disaster especially for clean platers like me.

Portion sizes began to grow in the 1980s and 1990s as restaurants, eager to capture business in a fiercely competitive market, strived to convey a sense of “good value” for the money. Everything got bigger. For example, a typical bagel 20 years ago measured three inches in diameter and had about 140 calories. Today the typical bagel is six inches and packs 310 calories. An average order of French fries once weighed 2.5 ounces with 210 calories, today it’s a hefty 6.9 ounces with 610 calories, and a Chicken Caesar Salad that used to be one and a half cups with 390 calories, has grown to three cups with 790 calories.

We can’t even escape portion distortion in the safety of our homes as our dinner plates have grown larger, as well as did muffin tins, pizza pans, etc.  We have to prepare more to fill them up. Also, many of the packaged processed foods come super-sized citing unrealistic portions sizes—though who lets a silly portion size stop them from eating the whole bag?  As the quantity of our portions have grown, we’ve come to accept it as normal, and even expect it now. Interestingly, Wansink’s research has shown that the more we have on our plate, the more we eat without even noticing.

So, with the plates loading up against me, I decided to embrace the hara hachi bu practice and to correct a life-long habit, as well as shed the last, stubborn 20 pounds. Sounds simple enough. Push away from the table when you start to feel satiated giving the stomach receptors time to signal the brain that you’re done. But that assumes you know when you’ve reached 80 percent capacity.

A few weeks and countless meals into it, I’m still trying to get the hang of it. There are tricks. Smaller plates, smaller serving sizes, eat slower, chew more, and no seconds. But somehow, despite Wansink’s research to the contrary, my body “knows” it’s being messed with, and keeps sending unhappy tweets to the brain.

The 80 percent mark remains elusive most times, and I hit 110 percent before I know it. It’s kind of like cruising down the freeway and zooming past the desired exit, only to realize it two exits later.

Awareness is the first step, and for the time being I’m content to exit when I reach FULL because I know the greatest challenge lies ahead—mastering  hara hachi bu and dessert, too.  I’m working on it.