We live in a food-saturated world, full of images and smells cueing us to eat. Combine this with our stressful lives where we often reach for food as reward, distraction or to help curb negative emotions, and we have the perfect storm for over-eating. While we know that total energy intake matters, there are better ways than counting calories to regulate our food consumption. In fact, calorie counting is inaccurate and time consuming and the obsessive nature of it can lead to disordered eating. It does little to help us tune into our own hunger and appetite signals and it detracts from our natural enjoyment of food. As an alternative to obsessing over scales, calorie charts or apps, I like to teach clients my favourite portion control method, based on an old Japanese custom called Hara Hachi Bu.

Naturally lean people with a healthy relationship to food seem somehow to know when to put their knife and fork down, and they’re comfortable pushing their plate away with food still on it. Take Japan’s Okinawans, for example. They’re some of the healthiest and longest-lived people on the planet – Okinawa has the highest number of centenarians in the world – and they are followers of a self-imposed calorie regulation method called ‘Hara Hachi Bu’, which means ‘eating until eight parts full’.

You see, our brains take about 20 minutes to catch up to our stomachs. So if you eat until your brain registers you’re 100% full, you can look forward to rolling home with that uncomfortable, over-stuffed feeling. But if you stop eating when you feel about 80% full, that’s about the right amount of food to leave you feeling comfortably satisfied 20 minutes later.

So, how do we do it? At first, it may take a bit of practice to tune in to our bodies. Most of us have no idea what ‘eating until 80% full’ feels like. If you’ve been eating more than is right for you for a while, chances are your stomach muscles have become accustomed to that quantity of food. Some say it takes 15–20 meals to reset the muscle memory of the stomach to get used to less food.

So here are five easy steps to help you establish the habit of Hara Hachi Bu:

1. Eat slowly
If you eat quickly, it’s more likely you’ll go right past the ‘80%’ point before your brain registers that you’re full. Chew your food well, explore and savour tastes and textures, and put your knife and fork down between mouthfuls.

2. Be present
In a fast-paced world where we eat on the run, at our desks or in our cars, we’re often oblivious to how much we’re eating – or even that we’re eating at all! When you eat, just eat. Give the experience the attention it deserves. Use all of your senses – touch, smell, taste, hearing and sight.

3. Tune in to your body
To notice that you’re 80% full, you need to tune in to the physiological cues in your body. When you’ve eaten around half your meal, stop and check in with how your stomach feels. Once your stomach starts to feel any pressure at all, you’re most likely at the 80% full mark.

4. Challenge your language
Our language is often constructed in ways that drive our behaviour. We often hear words along the lines of “Are you full?” and our answer to that dictates whether we eat more. Rather than eating until you’re full, think about eating until you’re no longer hungry.

5. Challenge your beliefs
As children we’re told to eat everything on our plate. In fact, we’re rewarded for it. But in the last few decades our plate sizes and food portions have increased dramatically. Challenge yourself to get comfortable with pushing your plate away or putting food in the bin – it’s better than treating yourself like a bin.

While Hara Hachi Bu doesn’t give us licence to eat anything we want – we should still focus on minimally processed, nutrient-dense whole foods – simply eating until we are 80% full is a great step towards achieving a healthy, lean body.

Try it this Christmas and really enjoy your festivities. You may even shed a few pounds while you do.

P.S. The 80% full trick is just one of the habits we teach in the Optimal U 365 Nutrition Coaching program.