a christian perspective on the world today

Hara Hachi Bu: Eat Slower, Live Longer

When my siblings and I were young, we used to eat at the rate of snails. As we sat around the dinner table, we’d be busy telling each other schoolyard stories and fighting over minute things and, every now and then, would pick up a noodle or take a bite of a potato, before diverging on yet another tangent.   

I know some parents have to tell their children not to gobble down their food and to eat slower, but my parents were dealing with a different issue—making sure we ate at all. They even purchased a 60-minute kitchen timer in the shape of a rooster that would sit in front of us at mealtimes. If the rooster crowed after 60 minutes and we hadn’t finished what was on our plates, we were sent to bed and our dinner was put in the fridge for us to finish at breakfast. If we didn’t eat it for breakfast, we’d sometimes find it on our school sandwiches.  

I hold no grudges against my parents for their discipline tactics, for had they not done anything, we probably would have had nutrient deficiencies, low energy or become very picky eaters. But somehow, over time—be it from increased practise with a knife and fork or just from adopting a more hurried lifestyle as an adult—the time I spent eating a meal drastically decreased. Nowadays, my default seems to be to swallow things in a matter of minutes . . . a habit that isn’t unique to me. 

Part of the busy life we’ve adopted in the West has seen a normalisation of eating breakfast at the wheel and lunch at the desk. If you’ve ever observed people in a food court, you may have realised that most people eat quickly, unless they’re also trying to feed a child. 

We’ve heard both “hurry up and eat your food” and “slow down and chew your food”. We’ve known it from the perspective of time and manners, but the pace at which we eat also affects our health. If we could find the time to eat at a steady pace and the discipline to slow down, we would reap many benefits.  

Something that has been practised for generations by the centenarian inhabitants of the people of Okinawa, Japan, is a concept called Hara Hachi Bu. This can be translated as “eat until you’re 80 per cent full” and is believed to be one of the secrets to their longevity that surpasses much of the world’s population. The Okinawans only know they are 80 per cent full because they eat slowly and pay attention to their body’s signals of fullness. Their trick is to stop eating as soon as they feel satisfied but not to the point they feel stuffed. 

So, what are the benefits of eating slowly and how did the people of Okinawa become centenarians because of it? 

Better digestion
Contrary to what most people think, digestion starts in the mouth, not the stomach. Minesh Khatri, associate professor at NYU Long Island School of Medicine, says a simple way to improve your digestion is to eat slower. When we chew our food, we turn it into smaller particles and our bodies start producing enzymes and hydrochloric acid that help break down food. The main reason we eat is to get the nutrients our bodies need to stay alive and healthy. If we don’t chew our food properly, we limit our nutrient intake and risk discomfort such as gas, bloating and constipation. In Ayurveda, a school of medicine founded in India thousands of years ago, slow and thorough chewing is considered essential to digestive health, helping you to separate a food’s indigestible components from necessary nutrients. 

(Credit: Beth Macdonald, Unsplash)

No more burps or burns
Have you ever felt a burning sensation in your chest or an intense pressure behind your breastbone? Heartburn is caused when the lower oesophageal sphincter, which acts as a valve in the oesophagus, opens too often or doesn’t close tightly enough when swallowing. This causes the stomach acids to flow back into the oesophagus, producing heartburn. This is often triggered when—you guessed it—we eat too quickly. Another symptom is burping, which is the body’s way of getting rid of extra air in your stomach—also often happening when you eat quickly.

Weight management
Time and time again, scientists have found that one of the biggest problems with the Western diet is overeating. In Australia, two-thirds of adults and a quarter of kids are overweight. This doesn’t just come down to the foods we are eating, but also the quantities. Not only does slowing down improve digestion, but it also helps us recognise the point at which we’ve had enough to eat.

Studies have shown that people who eat faster are more likely to consume more calories and as a result, gain more weight, increasing the risk of developing numerous health problems such as high blood pressure, cholesterol, heart disease and diabetes. In recent decades, it has become common in dietary programs to include advice about eating slowly or chewing thoroughly. This is because fast eaters are 115 per cent more likely to be obese than those who eat at a steady or slow pace.

The idea behind the Confucian-inspired adage hara hachi bu is that by eating slower, you consume fewer calories. Typically, we reach for seconds or thirds as soon as we’ve finished. We think we can fit in a little more because it genuinely feels that way. That is, until moments later we regret our decision and find ourselves in a food coma. That’s because it takes between 15 and 20 minutes for the satiety signals to be sent to the brain to tell the stomach that it’s reached capacity. By eating until you feel 80 per cent full, you’re giving your brain time to catch up and you’re giving your body enough fuel to function optimally without overloading it. 

Increased enjoyment
Have you ever slaved away for hours in the kitchen over a meal for family or friends, only to have them inhale it in what seems like seconds? When I first moved out of home and started cooking for myself more, I began to find joy in making dishes from the produce of my garden. Suddenly, it seemed like an offence to scoff something down without noticing the flavours and the textures of what I had made. 

Often, we miss the satisfaction of “mmm’s” and “wow this is good’s” we could experience because we’re too focused on doing or getting to the next “thing”—or are distracted. If you’re spending hours preparing food each day, take the time to slow down and enjoy the labour of your work. If you’re not doing the cooking yourself, take a moment to appreciate its flavours and thank the hands that prepared it. 

In Spain, it’s normal for dinner time to last two or three hours with people enjoying the flavours of their meals with a glass of wine. Eating is not seen as something they have to do to survive—it’s something they get to enjoy multiple times a day. Though I don’t drink alcohol, I can definitely get behind this philosophy of eating.

Super Bowl winner Bill Walsh said, “If you want better results, then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead.” Here are some things we can implement to help us eat slower and, as a result, less: 

• Eat with chopsticks or smaller utensils to reduce the volume of food you eat with each mouthful.
• Step away from your screens. A report published in the April issue of The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed how attention and memory affect food intake. The studies showed that being distracted or not paying attention to a meal tended to make people eat more and that paying attention to a meal was linked to eating less.
• Make less and serve less, then you will likely eat less.
• Eat with others. Conversation forces us to slow down. If there’s someone at the table who eats at a steady pace, try to mirror their pace.
• Put down your utensils between bites.
• Avoid extreme hunger. It’s hard to eat slowly when you’re starving.
• Choose fibrous foods that require more chewing. The more fibre, the better but it’s also typically harder to chew. So, dose up on fresh vegetables because they’ll by nature take you longer to chew.
• Follow the hara hachi bu rule and wait 20 minutes before going for seconds. 

(Credit: Ron Lach, Unsplash)

Horace Fletcher (no relation to myself), a self-proclaimed “economic nutritionist” from the early 20th century, once recommended chewing each bite to the point of liquefaction, which took a minimum of a hundred chews per bite.10 Scientists are yet to discover the ideal number of chews per bite (though most agree around 30 is good). I’m not suggesting you liquify your food or count every chew. Personally, I think that would only incline me to want to eat faster.  

However, some extra time to chew your food, to hara hachi bu, appears to be a good idea. Not only will you enjoy your food more, but you’ll feel better and you’ll do your body a favour in the process.  

Zanita Fletcher is a life coach and assistant editor for the Australia/New Zealand edition of Signs of the Times. She writes from the Gold Coast, Queensland.

Share this story

Before you go!

Get more Signs goodness every month! For less than the price of a hot beverage, you’ll get 8 amazing articles every month, as well as our popular columns What in the World, Ask Pr Jesse, a Crossword and Sudoku puzzle—and more!