Diet & Nutrition

How mindful eating can help you lose weight and improve your health

Really focusing on your eating might just be the key to enjoyment and weight loss.

We all know the feeling: sitting back in a chair, wishing there was a subtle way to emancipate our stomach from the top button of our jeans to allow room for the massive meal we’ve just consumed.

It’d be nice if this was a rare feeling, but for most of us, it’s not. The Western world offers a multitude of pleasures, many of them culinary, and in large portions.

Be it cake or clothing, we consume copiously, and we’re bombarded with messages that suggest we just have a little more. Our stomachs (and corresponding health issues) are expanding to keep up with what’s on offer.

Residents of Japan’s Okinawa Island move to the beat of a different drum: hara hachi bu. This translates to “eat only until you’re eight parts (out of ten) full” – that is, until you’re 80 per cent full.

Okinawans have been studied extensively and are regarded as among the healthiest in the world. They have a simple, nutritious diet, and many live for more than 100 years while experiencing lower rates of stroke, dementia, hip fractures and heart disease. Okinawa’s cancer rates are 50 to 80 per cent lower than that of most developed countries (the difference is due to fewer breast, colon, ovarian and prostate cancers).

Mindful eating is not just a Japanese practice. The French leave us gob-smacked at how they remain slim and fabulous on a diet of brie, beef bourguignon and baguettes.

The secret is in their small serving sizes. Meals are enjoyed slowly, and snacking on the run is virtually unknown.

There’s a greater respect for the food they eat and the bodies they live in; good luck finding an all-you-can-eat buffet in France!

Two thousand years ago, Hippocrates, the Greek founder of medicine, found that most of the diseases he treated were associated with overeating and gluttony, and noted, “Corpulence is not only a disease itself, but a harbinger of others.”

Put simply, his obese patients were dying at a younger age than his leaner ones. Maybe this ancient wisdom has more to teach us than those Instagram ‘fitspo’ posts.

Which brings us back to hara hachi bu, the time-honoured practice that’s proven to decrease the risks and complications of obesity.

Aiming to eat until you’re 80 per cent full enables you to appreciate your food and tune in to how full your stomach really is. This is, in fact, mindfulness. ‘Listen’ to your stomach 20 minutes after eating. Does it feel full?

Hara hachi bu has so much to teach us. Here in New Zealand, despite our 21st-century technology, education and food options, two in three adults are overweight or obese, and the number on the scales is climbing.

Of course, the solution doesn’t lie in skimping on your nutritional needs, skipping the special treats that make life worth living, or walking around feeling slightly hungry all the time.

To be healthy, we need to fuel our bodies and minds.

Logically, we know we’re at our strongest and healthiest when we’re neither overweight nor underweight, and hara hachi bu is simply an approach that may lead to a better quality of life via listening to your body’s needs.

Tips for adopting the hara hachi bu mindset

  • Start with less on your plate. Serve yourself slightly less than you usually would and before going back for seconds ask, ‘Am I hungry?’ Sit, relax, chat, have a drink of water and you may find you are actually satiated.

  • When cooking at home, serve 150g of meat per adult, not the average 250g. Pre-portioned packs may help you not to overeat.

  • Buy smaller dinner plates to trick your brain into eating smaller portions.

  • At functions, why not skip the starters? Six canapés plus two glasses of alcohol equal the energy equivalent of two meals

  • Try ordering an entrée instead of a main. Many contain quite enough food.

  • At dinnertime, serve your portion, then put any remaining food straight into the fridge or freezer so you don’t mindlessly pick at it.

  • It’s harder to overeat when you’re taking your time. Have a glass of water with your meal, and put your knife and fork down between each mouthful.

  • Do you snack after dinner? Is it a need or a habit?

  • Don’t let yourself get ravenous. Plan ahead so you don’t make poor food choices or eat too quickly.

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