Eat 80 Percent

New Jersey diner dessert case

It’s not that I eat bad foods. It’s that I eat too much. I have a Jersey diner mentality. Big portions. There is a Japanese cultural habit of healthy eating called hara hachi bu, which means eat only until you are 80% full (literally, “stomach 80%”).

That is possibly easier to follow in Japan where portions are generally much smaller than in the U.S. and the pace of eating is also slower. One thing it does not mean in Japan is leaving a fifth of your meal on the plate. It is bad form to leave food on your plate. That is a rule my mother seemed to follow. “Clean your plate” was a rule in my house and it has stuck with me – which has not helped my waistline.

Stopping at 80% might be a good way to avoid obesity without going hungry. The stomach’s stretch receptors take about 20 minutes to tell the brain that it is full. That’s why you probably feel really full about 20 minutes after you stop eating.

Pastrami Reuben with disco fries at an NJ diner – not part of the Okinawa diet.

Hara hachi bu is discussed in a diet book called The Okinawa Diet Plan: Get Leaner, Live Longer, and Never Feel Hungry. It’s based on a traditional Okinawa, Japan diet that emphasizes vegetables, whole grains, fruits, legumes, fish, and limited meats.

Keeping that 80% in mind, I looked at some health statistics for Okinawa that I found: heart disease rates are 80% lower than in the U.S; the rate of stroke is also lower and cholesterol levels are typically under 180. Their rates of cancer are 50-80% lower – especially for breast, colon, ovarian, and prostate cancers.

When I started searching online for more information on this 80% rule, I came across a blog post that wondered if this principle could relate to other aspects of life. The blogger (who writes about business presentations) related it to the length of a good speech, presentation, or meeting.

He says, “No matter how much time you are given, never ever go over time, and in fact finish a bit before your allotted time is up. How long you go will depend on your own unique situation at the time but try to shoot for 80-90% of your allotted time. No one will complain if you finish with a few minutes to spare. The problem with most presentations is that they are too long, not too short. Performers, for example, know that the trick is to leave the stage while the audience still loves you and doesn’t want you to go, and not after they have had enough and are full of you.”

Does hara hachi bu relate to anything in your life?

I can certainly see situations where I would NOT want it to be a guiding philosophy. For example, I wouldn’t want my students to give 80% of their effort. Then again, in this current economic downturn, perhaps it makes sense for all of us to use the principle in situations like our spending. Maybe, as with food, you only need to buy 80% of what you think you need in clothing, dining out, travel and non-essentials. Spend only 80%, save 20% or donate the 20% to charity.

The 80% food rule is good as long as you can tell you’re at that point. I’m not a fast eater, so you’d think that I could sense I was full and just stop. My wife rarely finishes a meal when we go out. Eat half and take half home for lunch tomorrow. I have to break the habits of my childhood. And maybe go to fewer diners.

Mindful Eating

Eating lunch at your computer could make you fat: Snacking at your keyboard boosts your appetite later on

That was the headline I saw on a UK site while I was eating my yogurt at my desk today. I am certainly not alone in mastering the art of eating and tapping on the computer keyboard at work.

Now, it is being studied. And the studies seem to indicate that eating at your desk makes you far more likely to snack later in the day. The researchers, from the University of Bristol, were studying the ways in which memory and attention influence our appetite.

Eating at your desk leads to distraction and irritability and actually leaves you hungrier than if you eat mindfully.

They used for the study the distraction of  playing solitaire on a computer while participants ate. The control group ate without distraction. The study found that solitaire-players ended up more hungry after eating twice as much food as the control.

Not only do we tend to eat more when we’re distracted, but even if we decide in advance how much we’re going to eat – just a yogurt and coffee – we’re likely to be hungrier if we eat it at our desk.


That mind/body connection is so strong that when we aren’t mindful of our eating, our bodies are less likely to notice that we’re full.

What would mindful eating look like?  Paying close attention to WHAT we are eating, WHERE we are eating it, WHAT we are doing while we eat and actually remembering what we have eaten.

I’m sitting down to dinner after I post this. I won’t sit in front of the TV and watch the news. I will try to focus on each food. I will eat slowly. I will speak only about pleasant things with my wife.