Until now I’ve made a point of covering different topics each week here on Fig + Black. For me, at least, it’s more interesting when I can talk about my collective interests. But this week I’m going to stick with the theme of portion control [ see last week’s post for my intro into this topic ]. In particular, portion control on a vegan diet.
As I said last time, just to recap, everyone including vegans should follow the "eighty-percent rule". Namely, that all of us should eat until we sense that we are about eighty-percent full. At every single meal. Not just sometimes and not just when nothing in the cupboard looks appealing and it's easy to cut back on food volume when we sit down to eat. It's something we need to think about each time we eat. That's because our bodies only have a limited capacity for digestion - a set amount of digestive enzymes released per meal, for instance, and limited muscle strength through the gut to propel food matter along its course. Overeating at any meal will hinder your body's ability to perform this essential function, ultimately leading to [A] improper absorption of nutrients which, chronically, can result in mineral imbalances and vitamin deficiencies; [B] undigested matter passing through the intestines, which can irritate the delicate gut lining and cause food masses to clog the intestines, leading to [C] constipation and, over time, gut inflammation; and [D] general lethargy, brain fog, irritability, tiredness, skin problems, rashes, headaches, mood swings, and malaise due to overburdening your system.
Thankfully, there is a recognized way to combat this tendency towards overeating [ especially in the West, where it's a massive problem ]. The Japanese even have a phrase for this particular practice: hara hachi bu. Based on ancient Confucian teachings, circa 1300, this once-widespread practice is typically only adhered to [ whether knowingly or not ] by older generations of Japanese people. Specifically, the Okinawans. Notably, the traditional Okinawan diet is heavily plant-based [ for a great summary and loads of sources cited see Dr. Michael Greger’s article here ]. And guess what else... Okinawans are also known for having the world’s highest proportion of centenarians. Sure, correlation doesn't imply causation, but still...
One benefit of a plant-based hara hachi bu practice is that you WILL get to eat more in volume on a vegan diet than on any other. Fruits and vegetables are much less calorically dense than their fatty animal alternatives. And hey, you won’t be increasing your chances for heart disease , cancer , diabetes  and weight gain , Alzheimer’s , or total mortality  either when you stick to eating plants.
The problem is, some vegans promote overeating anyway. Whether they do so intentionally or not is up for debate. The point is, I finally got the idea of ‘making sure I eat enough on a vegan diet’ out of my head. That so easily tossed around catchphrase among vegans doesn’t have to equate with eating until I’m full or stuffed. It could mean listening to my body, sometimes very, very closely, to determine when I should stop eating. But then they should say that, right? When it comes to teaching, especially, I'm all about clarity - clearly conveying the intended meaning - which is why the common use of this phrase among vegans really pushes my buttons.
So how do people who have grown up in a society that promotes overeating even begin to practice hara hachi bu?
One way is to simply determine your BMR [ basal metabolic rate ] using one of many online calculators that take your height, weight, gender and age into consideration. Add to that number the calories you burn exercising each day [ note that many people overestimate this number by a lot - like a LOT, a lot – so it’s best to use another calculator to take your weight and effort into account for each activity ] and determine how many calories you need to eat each day. Then break it down into 3 meals and a snack, for example. Simple. I’m all about numbers and straightforward, scientific, measurable approaches so this is how I started out. I use cronometer.com to set those baselines and track all the numbers for me - from what I ate to how much I exercised - until I got the pattern established in my mind.
Another method is to eat intuitively using somatic inquiry – basically listening to your body and reacting to its needs based on how it feels. Checking in with your body after each and every bite. This idea can be foreign for many people, especially those of us in the West inundated with massive food propaganda. It’s even more challenging for those of us coming from disordered eating backgrounds. We may have no idea what this feels like – it may feel like ‘I’m still hungry’ for a while when this practice begins. I can personally confirm that it takes about one – maybe two or more – weeks of practice to really get a feel for what ‘eighty-percent’ is like and to stop craving ‘more’ just for the sake of eating more. Some people say it takes roughly 20 meals. Whatever the number is for you, let me assure you that once you make the switch and adopt hara hachi bu you will feel SO much better. Lighter. Cleaner. It’s like giving up coffee or salt – or going vegan for that matter – once you get all the extra junk out of your system, your taste buds, your whole being, grow accustomed to that new baseline, one that feels somehow, inexplicably better – and you’ll never go back to your old habits again.
I’m about 2-3 weeks into a hara hachi bu practice and I’m feeling a good deal better and I’m pleased with the results. My digestion has improved dramatically [ which is why I began it in the first place ] and I never get bloated any more. My tummy is flat and it feels happier and lighter. I don’t have food cravings in between meals. I genuinely feel less hungry now than I did when I was eating more. I was already thin, but even after two weeks my body looks and feels leaner. Unfortunately, it hasn’t allowed me to eat cooked food yet, but in the words of the great Bob Wiley: “Baby steps.” I’m sure my digestion is still very weak and maybe I’ll have to approach it like weaning an infant off milk to solid food. Baby steps.
Coming from a disordered eating background, I know I’d take flack for this if I was any younger. Been there done that. But these days I’m old enough to know myself, and know myself well, and there IS a difference between intentionally starving yourself and eating less by eating intuitively. One method rejects what the body needs out of fear, the other accepts and gives the body what it needs, when it needs it, in the right quantity and using the best quality ingredients. As someone who knows both, the difference couldn’t be more dramatic.
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