Follow the 80/20 rule when you eat

Challenge your relationship with food for better health
Feb 12, 2019 · Catherine Poslusny
Father fixing breakfast for his children

When new, often-conflicting diet trends become popular, it can be hard to understand which one is actually best for your body. By the time you finish wading through the online chatter about a certain diet, there’s often a newer one on the scene, promising even more weight loss and an even bigger increase in energy levels. There’s an endless amount of dietary advice available online, but how are you supposed to sort through it all to find a sustainable way to improve your health? The answer may lie in changing your relationship with food altogether. 

In many areas of our lives, we’re taught that more is better – more money, more friends, a bigger house, more social media followers. It can be difficult to separate our cultural focus on “getting our money’s worth” from our eating habits, especially when faced with a landscape of giant portion sizes, even bigger plates, and all-you-can-eat buffets. With “more is more” as a prevailing mindset, it isn’t hard to see why almost 40% of the adult population in the United States is obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We’re all familiar with the particular blend of discomfort and regret that comes with overindulging. Maybe the meal was too delicious (or expensive) to go to waste, or maybe you were watching the latest episode of your favorite show and didn’t realize how full you were until it was too late. Either way, overeating can leave you feeling fatigued, uncomfortable, and cranky. In the long term, it can lead to weight gain and chronic disease.

The Okinawan people in Japan, famous for their health and longevity, have a beautifully simple solution to this problem: hara hachi bu. In English, the phrase means to eat until you’re only 80% full. To put things in perspective, Okinawan adults typically consume 1,200 calories a day, while U.S. adults consume an average of 1,800 to 2,600 calories a day, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) (PDF, 62KB).

Instead of eating until they’re full, those practicing hara hachi bu focus on eating until they are no longer hungry. One key to doing this is slowing down your meals. Have you ever noticed how fullness can sneak up on you? Sometimes you don’t realize until after you swallowed that last bite that you probably should have stopped eating a few forkfuls ago. This is because your brain doesn’t register that you’re full until it receives signals from digestive hormones in your gastrointestinal tract that are secreted when you eat. It takes about 20 minutes for this process to happen, which is why eating quickly can easily lead to overeating.

When you make your meals last longer than 20 minutes, you have a better opportunity to gauge your body’s reaction to the types and amounts of food that you eat. By giving your brain time to register how full you are, you’ll be more likely to recognize when you’re 80% full and stop eating. To slow down your meals, try:

  • Splitting your meals into several small courses
  • Eating from smaller plates and bowls
  • Avoiding television while you eat
  • Maintaining an active conversation during meals

By practicing mindful eating, you can learn to interpret your body’s signals and eat enough to make you feel energized and satisfied without feeling stuffed. To get more in tune with your body’s nutritional needs and learn how to tell when you’re 80% full, try the following methods:

  • Eat about half of what you would typically eat during a meal, then take a short break to see how you feel. If you’re still hungry after some time has passed, try eating another quarter of your meal.
  • Before you take a bite, stop to consider whether you are actually hungry. If not, think about why you want to eat. Things like boredom, sadness, anxiety, anger, and even certain places and people can trigger an impulse to eat when we aren’t hungry. Take note of this when it happens to you.
  • Stop worrying about whether you’ll be hungry again in an hour. If you genuinely do get hungry again, you can have a snack, but don’t let worry about future hunger give you an excuse to overeat in the present.

It will probably take a couple of weeks of mindful eating for you to begin to understand your body’s food needs. Be patient with yourself. Planning to stop eating when you’re 80% full is not as much about doing the math surrounding your portion sizes as it is about making a commitment to yourself not to overeat. By doing that, you’ll be well on your way to increasing your energy levels and life expectancy by preventing weight gain and chronic disease. If you still have questions about how to keep your diet or portion under control, don’t hesitate to talk to your nutritionist. Blue Shield members can easily find one by logging in to their accounts or downloading the mobile app.

Don’t stress out about remembering or sticking to the guidelines of the latest diet trend. Just remember the 80/20 rule: Eat until you’re only 80% full and make your meals last more than 20 minutes. Building a healthy relationship with food takes time, but the effort is always worth it.

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