This week, I was introduced to the Japanese concept of hara hachi bu or eating until the stomach is 80% full. As part of the Lean Eating program, I’ve been trying to introduce this practice into my life. While the idea may seem simple, this is without a doubt one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
I’ve said before that that I no longer have hunger signals. Instead, I’ve been clinging to myfitnesspal and calorie counting to tell me how much I can eat. The good news is that my body does still work like it should, and if I pay close attention then I do know when I’m hungry and when I’m not. The bad news is that I’ve perfected the art of ignoring these signals until they’ve reached the levels of a national alert – which is how I end up clutching my stomach, curled up in the foetal position and moaning because I’ve eaten too many chocolate covered pretzels yet again.
While I try not to eat myself into a stomach ache at every meal, I am still guilty of overeating in general, as evidenced by the fact that I can’t get my weight down to where I’d like it. In theory, if my hunger signals do still exist somewhere in my body, then eating less should be easy if I just start obeying them. Unfortunately, the reality is a lot more complex and it turns out that when I try to eat less, I run head first into a giant emotional minefield.
Like most people in my generation, I’ve been taught to lick the plate clean. I have very distinct memories of being dropped off at the babysitter’s house each morning when I was younger. Before school, we’d sit around her table for breakfast and she’d slide a Costco –sized bran muffin in front of each of us. We weren’t allowed to leave the table until our plates were empty.
A part of me knows that this behaviour is totally irrational. For starters, I still shudder internally at the thought of store-bought bran muffins; they are simply revolting and nutritionally void. Can’t every human being see that no five year-old needs to eat an entire processed cake larger than their own head for breakfast every morning? I could see this all quite plainly even when I was in kindergarten!
I harbored such resentment over having to eat those jumbo muffins. I would often sit at the breakfast table for upwards of 40 minutes, aimlessly picking at the crumbs, unable to swallow despite the fact that lunch was hours away. These were clear indications that I was not physically hungry. Yet there I was, scolded if I didn’t finish the entire thing, even as my own body protested.
This attitude of ignoring my body’s physical hunger has permeated the rest of my eating habits. If I go to a restaurant, I try to finish what’s put in front of me. Never mind that restaurants plonk down an outrageously gargantuan portion size and a never-ending bread bowl, I strive to lick my plate clean. It tastes so good! And if I enjoy it and can fit it all in my belly, why shouldn’t I? I’ve paid for my heaping portion of food and I wouldn’t want the leftovers or my money to go to waste.
The same thing happens at home: my goal is always to finish eating supper, and the natural conclusion of a meal occurs is when the plate has been emptied. This endpoint is intuitively flawed because it doesn’t take into account how much food is on the plate to begin with, nor does it consider my own level of hunger. And defining the clean plate as the capstone of a meal is even worse when I consider that I am the child of two parents who are morbidly obese: they couldn’t instill a foundation of reasonable portion sizes in their children when they were chronic overeaters themselves.
So here I am: I’m 80% full. I am physically satiated and my stomach feels a bit uncomfortable if I pause to think about it. I’ve experienced and enjoyed all of the flavours of my meal. I have no reason to continue eating! Except that the remains of my dinner are left on my plate, consuming me with feelings of guilt and anxiety as they stare back at me.
I’m wasting mouthfuls of perfectly good food that would taste delicious! I could fit them in my stomach and continue to enjoy the taste if I tried. But instead, I am literally throwing my own money into the garbage can. There are poor starving children who could eat that food in Africa and they would be grateful for it. I try to remind myself that I am not responsible for all of the failings of our current global food distribution system. There may be enough food to feed the world’s population, but a whole host of conspiring factors brought a particular serving of rice to my table.
When the environmentalist in me balks because finite resources were required to grow, harvest and transport this food, I try to assuage my conscious by reminding myself that I live the most environmentally conscious lifestyle possible within my means. Food waste is biodegreable and I minimize my footprint by buying sustainably from the start.
Most importantly, I need to be healthy to address these issues that I care about, and overeating doesn’t support my body, my mind or anyone else. Maybe it does help whichever corporation sold me the food, but I’ve already given them my money and in that sense the action in irrevocable, whether I choose to eat those last three bites or not.
Still my mother’s voice niggles at the back of my mind, when I’m staring at the last pieces of food on my plate. I should finish my portion in case I’m hungry later. At 8 am, lunch feels like it is mere eons away, and I’ll inevitably choose something less healthy three hours from now if I don’t finish my meal. Forgetting of course that I am an adult who can make a healthy choice at any time of day, it’s at this point that I’m grateful to have the accountability of Precision Nutrition. I have to trust them when they say that 80% is enough, if for no reason other than to get my checkmark for the day.
The funny thing is, every time that I stop to ask myself whether I’m really hungry between meals, I find that the answer is still “No” – or when I start to get hungry, I can wait until the next meal. It’s been a revelation to find that eating less can still mean eating enough to keep me fuelled, focused and present in my life. I am starting to hope that at some point I will be able to quell my desire to finish everything that’s put in front of me, simply because it’s there. It might take some time to undo all of the damage inflicted by all of those god awful bran muffins, but I have faith that I can start enjoying the food that I both want and need to truly nourish myself.