Hara Hachi Bu: Lessons from Okinawa

Hara hachi bu - eat until you’re 80% full.   It’s a good lesson in moderation and self-restraint – and one of many lessons we can learn from Okinawa, that legendary island of long life and extended health.   Get plenty of sunshine, eat whole foods, value your community, embrace ikigai or your reason for being and hara hachi bu – eat until you’re 80% full.

A military brat, I spent the bulk of my grade school years on Okinawa and, thanks to an adventurous mother, we explored the island, its culture and, of course, its foods instead of sheltering ourselves within the isolated confines of the air base.   While the adventurousness of my mother’s enthusiasm for unusual foods (I’d like to see her duke it out with Andrew Zimmern) can leave even me queasy, she taught me good lessons – namely a respect for indigenous food culture that persists to this day and is reinforced by nonprofit organizations like the Weston A Price Foundation and the Price Pottenger Nutritional Foundation.

My mother would not settle for the standard American foods shipped in across a hemisphere of ocean to the military commissaries.   Yes, we ate our fair share of spaghetti and drank plenty of   Crystal Light, but she preferred the freshness and striking variety of Okinawa’s markets. She’d drag my sister and I out on sunny days to the markets and I’d examine the fresh fish – their eyes still glistening and moist from the ocean and their mouth’s gaping open as if to say, “Don’t eat me and I’ll grant you a wish.”

I fell in love with food in Okinawa.   I remember the savory and unctuous octopus stir fry at one restaurant and the sesame spinach at another.   Still yet, I remember having lunch at a tiny restaurant on a coral cliff overlooking the ocean and being surprised to find a very, very small and very, very live crab in the bottom of my tepid soup.     Never mind the yakitori stands that filled the air just outside Gate 2 street with billows of teriyaki-scented smoke.   I loved Okinawa – and I loved its foods.

Okinawan Market Foods

Traditional Foods of Okinawa

The traditional foods of Okinawa are misunderstood.   After researchers on aging pegged Okinawa as a hot spot of long life, writers examined the lifestyle and eating habits of Okinawan centenarians in effort to track down some elixir or combination of factors contributing to their long lives.   And, as is wont to happen, instead of examining the traditional foods of Okinawa in their own right; they, instead, evaluated them with a decidedly western eye – omitting certain factors, ignoring others and neglecting the context in which still others appear – as if they needed to make the traditional, life-giving foods of Okinawa fit with the diets encouraged by the United States government and the nutritional powers that be.

Animal Foods, Seafoods, Fat and Okinawa Cuisine

Traditional foods of Okinawa are extremely varied, remarkably nutrient-dense as are all traditional foods and strictly moderated with the philosophy of hara hachi bu.   While the diet of Okinawa is, indeed, plant-based it is most certainly not “low fat” as has been posited by some writer-researchers about the native foods of Okinawa.   Indeed, all those stirfries of bittermelon and fresh vegetables found in Okinawan bowls are fried in lard and seasoned with sesame oil.     I remember fondly that a slab of salt pork graced every bowl of udon I slurped up while living on the island.   Pig fat is not, as you can imagine, a low-fat food yet the Okinawans are fond of it. Much of the fat consumed is pastured as pigs are commonly raised at home in the gardens of Okinawan homes.   Pork and lard, like avocado and olive oil, are a remarkably good source of monounsaturated fatty acid and, if that pig roots around on sunny days, it is also a remarkably source of vitamin D.

The diet of Okinawa also includes considerably more animal products and meat – usually in the form of pork – than that of the mainland Japanese or even the Chinese.   Goat and chicken play a lesser, but still important, role in Okinawan cuisine. Okinawans average about 100 grams or one modest portion of meat per person per day.     Animal foods are important on Okinawa and, like all food, play a role in the population’s general health, well-being and longevity.

Fish plays an important role in the cooking of Okinawa as well. Seafoods eaten are various and numerous – with Okinawans averaging about 200 grams of fish per day.   Octopus, minnows, skipjack, mahi, crab and even sea urchin are enjoyed liberally.   I recall walking the reefs at low-tide to watch the old mamasans in their sunbonnets squatting over the rocky coral as they scooped up spiny sea urchins, bashed them against reef and scooped out the bright orange goo of inside the urchins.   With mixture of disgust and fascination, I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the discarded urchins – their black spines still wiggling despite their lack of insides.

Sea urchin or uni, is a very potent source of fat soluble vitamins including vitamins A and E and it is also a good source of phosphorus, vitamin B12, folate, riboflavin and even vitamin C.   Uni, like many of Okinawa’s foods, is extremely nutrient-dense.   It is also remarkably fatty with over half of its calories coming from fat – particularly omega-3 fatty acids.

Vegetables, Starches, Grains and Okinawan Cuisine

Okinawans use vegetables abundantly and liberally – with vegetables comprising the greatest volume in the native diet.   Burdock, carrots, sprouts, wild greens and medicinal herbs are staples.   Loofah and the strongly flavored bittermelon are frequently eaten as well.   Vegetables make it to every meal – sometimes steamed and often stirfried in lard and seasoned with sesame oil.   Bittermelon or goya is an acquired taste, to put it lightly.   It is extremely bitter and remember, where there’s flavor, there’s nutrients.   Bittermelon is rich in vitamin C.   Bittermelon shows promise in the treatment of   type II diabetes as it increases insulin sensitivity.

Iodine-rich sea vegetables such as kombu play an important role in the traditional cuisine of Okinawa.   Many types of seaweed are harvested and eaten liberally.   Sea vegetables, like fish and shellfish, are nutrient-dense – providing a rich source of trace minerals like calcium, magnesium and iron as well as vitamin K and folate.

Traditional Okinawan cooking also makes use of starches in moderate portions.   Millet, rice and the purple-fleshed sweet potato   comprise the bulk of the starches though some buckwheat-based soba and wheat-based udon are also used.   Until the decades following World War II, polished white rice was not widely available and Okinawa’s inhabitants, instead, relied on whole brown rice often combined with millet as well as the purple-fleshed sweet potato which is – I can say from personal experience – oh so good.   Really good.   It’s important to note that grain and starches, apart from times of famine when sweet potato was the only food widely available, were only eaten in small to moderate portions.

Soy, Sugar, Tea and Other Accompaniments to Okinawan Cuisine

Soy enthusiasts often point to Asia and Okinawa, specifically, to illustrate perceived benefits of the humble soybean. The Okinawans, like most Asians, have included soy foods into their diet; however, soy’s role in the cuisine of Okinawa is more limited than you might initially think.   Indeed while soy foods are enjoyed almost daily, they are neither used in large portions nor used as a primary source of nutrients; rather, they’re used as condiments.   And, like all condiments, they’re included as an accompaniment to other foods.   Moreoever, in Okinawa, the type of soy eaten is most often fermented.   Shoyu, natto and miso are featured.   The exception to this rule is tofu which may still, from time to time, be fermented prior to eating and is usually consumed in stir fries.

Soy tends to be goitrogenic, that is: it slows down thyroid function.   In Okinawa, you’ll note that soy is consumed in limited portions and as an accompaniment to a diet that is otherwise rich in iodine from seafood and sea vegetables.   This natural combination may very well reduce soy’s goitrogenic effects.

Sweets are enjoyed in Okinawa, though, traditionally speaking, only sugar cane and candies made of unrefined lump sugar were eaten.   Visiting a living heritage farm on the island, I recall how the cane was cut, milled in its traditional method which released its juices.   Those juices were then boiled down to create sugar.   The sugar cane was not refined, bleached or other wise processed and its natural minerals were left intact along with its rich molasses-like flavor.   This sugar was often used to season pork and chicken as in classic teriyaki sauces as well as used as a candy.   Similarly, youths all over the island enjoyed fresh cut cane.   Though used as a seasoning agent for meat and an occasional candy, it was left unrefined and its use was limited.

Green teas and even kelp tea are traditionally enjoyed throughout the day and at meal times.   These teas are rich in cancer-fighting polyphenols.   Awamori, a distilled liquor similar to sake, is also traditionally consumed in Okinawa and most often combined with ice and water.

Hara Hachi Bu

Okinawa’s wholesome foods are traditionally eaten wisely and modestly.   The philosophy of hara hachi bu, or eating until you’re 80% full, accompanies meal time as Okinawans deliberately moderate their portion sizes and hunger.   Indeed, hara hachi bu is often whispered like a prayer or grace prior to commencing a meal.   The concept of restricting one’s intake of food is not isolated to the Okinawans.   Indeed, Weston A Price who studied traditional diets across the globe in the 1930s, found that most if not all traditional societies practiced some form of self-restriction whether it was eating only until 80% full or periodic fasting surrounding rituals.

In the end, we could all benefit from hara hachi bu – reminding ourselves not to over eat and to be thankful for the nutrient-rich foods that grace our plates.

Map Credit

Photo Credit – Okinawan Market

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What people are saying

  1. says

    What an interesting post! I was wondering how they cook their vegetables in Okinawa. I recently read “The Blue Zones” where the author talks about the longevity of Okinawans and a few other cultures that tend to have higher proportions of centenarians. Like you said, the book was written through western eyes. In the section on Costa Rica, for example, he focuses on all the beans that they eat but doesn’t seem to care that they are all cooked in lard! Thanks for sharing your experience with this distant way of life.

  2. Lisa Z says

    Wow, that was so informative! Thank you so much for taking the time to put all this information out there for people. I’ve been sharing your blog posts on facebook many days and many of my friends are really enjoying it.

  3. says

    Yet another fabulous article! I am loving all the great information written with such care. You are truly using your gifts to help others. Your personal history at the beginning of this article makes digesting all the nutritional science much more enjoyable. I can’t wait to try some Okinawan foods and to remember hara hachi bu.

  4. says

    I loved your personal army brat stories! It must have been great to embrace another culture. From now on, I’ll be thinking Hara Hachi Bu during mealtimes! The fam in Spain loves Sea Urchins. I used to catch them in the early morning for midmeals. So much fun!! Great post!

  5. Bekki says

    Wonderful article! I recently had the chance to try some sea urchin roe, inspired by old episodes of Iron Chef, and… seriously doubt I’ll ever voluntarily eat it again. But I’m glad to know it was really nutrient dense, so it was at least worth the effort. ;-)

  6. tina says

    I lived in Korea about ten years ago (I taught ESL.) Soy is definitely not eaten as a food stable in Korea. It was, as you write in your article, used in small amounts as condiments. I only remember having tofu in one soup. And because I lived in Korea, I had the opportunity to travel to other Asian countries and guess what? Soy is not a stable in China, Thailand or Vietnam!

    It seems to me that the only country that eats unfermented soy in vast amounts are we Americans!

  7. says

    The food sounds very simmilar to what is eaten in Vietnam. I was fortunate to spend a month in Hanoi at the end of 2006. While in Hanoi you would see a more modern diet, though still bought daily from the market and not as processed. There was an open air market that I could see from our room right out the front steps. Fish, eel, vegetables, pork, and many ferments were available along with seasonal fruits. The store fronts behind the market stalls sold the more processed “staples” such as flour, baby formula, instant noodles, cookies, and canned goods. While there, I saw little to no soy in use. Perhaps I just didn’t notice it, but it certainly was not a mainstay where I was at.
    Out in the provinces you would be hard pressed to find many of those “staple” goods you would find in a grocery store or at the market storefronts. Each community had a central market and every group of houses (usually families) had a garden growing much of what they ate. The food was varied according to where you were.
    One of my favorite dishes was sauteed spinach, but it was a different spinach than what they eat here. Seasond with sesame seeds, cooked in sesame oil, and sprinkled with fermented fish sauce it was so tender and the flavors deep. We also had plenty of dragon fruit to eat. It was so tasty and like nothing you ever see here. In fact, if I saw it here it would be sad to think of how far and how long it took to get it here.

  8. Jenny says

    Lisa -

    Thank you so much for sharing my posts on facebook!  I really appreciate it and it’s great to know that people are enjoying my site – it takes an awful lot of work to keep it running!

    - Jenny

    • Malvina De La Canal says

      Hi Jenny,

      This article was very informative, and greatly appreciated. Could recommend a book of Okinawan recipes that adheres to Okinawa’s traditional cooking and doesn’t try to westernize the recipes too much?

  9. Alecia says

    I like the concept of Hara Hachi Bu. How neat. Your blog is always so informative and gives good perspective on food issues without being obstrusive or disrespectful to others’ views. A wonderful way to inspire change.

  10. Jeanmarie says

    Thank-you so much for this. While I’ve never been to Okinawa, I lived in Japan for a total of 13 years and the traditional dietary practices sound very similar. I did a homestay for the first year, was invited to the homes of many Japanese for meals over the years, had a Japanese roommate at one point (and later a Korean roommate during grad school) and had many opportunities to see how ordinary people lived and I’ll always treasure those experiences.

    Japanese also eat a wide variety of vegetables along with meat, fish, rice, some potatoes and other grains. They seek to eat seasonally and appreciate food with their eyes as well as their mouths. It’s not all kaiseki ryori (the haute cuisine) but that sensibility permeates the food culture so that even ramen noodles have toppings of vegetables and kamaboko (fish cake) placed just so in the bowls. Stuffing oneself silly is not part of Japanese tradition, though for some reason Japanese competitors seem to do well in eating competitions! Soy is definitely not the star of Japanese cuisine, only a part of it, and under American influence, protein powders are hawked as health food and soy milk is readily available in grocery stores, though not so widely drunk as cow’s milk. The skin and fat of meats are appreciated; theirs is not traditionally an anti-fat cuisine and I don’t think it’s as lowfat as commonly portrayed, except in past times of famine and food shortage. After more protein and fat entered the Japanese diet post-WWII, average heights shot up. Sadly, with the increases in sugar, trans fats, HFCS and a changing food culture, obesity can be found there, too, and not just among sumo wrestlers.

  11. Beth says

    Liked this so much I reposted it on my facebook page. Thank you for your thorough and honest reporting. Love hara hachi bu… especially when it includes plenty of traditional fats. You rock!

  12. says

    The country with the longest living people in the world is Okinawa, followed by Japan. As far as the foods being nutrient dense, Joel Fuhrman MD suggest people eat a nutritarian diet. He coined that word and it means a diet of nutrient dense foods.

    • says

      Okinawa is certainly home to a disproportionate number of centenarians, but their diet is omnivorous and, as such, is not the diet recommended by Fuhrman. Fuhrman recommends a vegan diet devoid of animal foods and while he may call it “nutritarian,” he ignores the role that nutrient-dense animal foods like pastured pork, pork liver, fish and roe (all features of the traditional foods in Okinawa) play in human health.

      • Kate Florio says

        I think both eating plans can come into play – Dr. Furmans ETL and the Okinawan diet.
        At home I eat the ETL diet and out with other people I eat the conventional diet or at least closer to it.
        Or maybe I should say closer to the Okinawan diet, because I usually eat lots of vegetables with either a piece of salmon or another piece of fish, or a piece of chicken depending on what’s available. It seems to work pretty well, except for the Hara hachi bu concept – because I like to overeat and filll up to the brim! Yesterday, however, at a Christmas party, a play, and lunch, I was able to follow the hara hachi bu concept – felt great!

  13. says

    That is so exciting, you got to live & experience the Okinawan culture. Love reading about more insights on the Okinawan Diet. Thanks for sharing your experience. And also looking forward to more healthy recipes for REAL FOOD from your Nourished Kitchen. :-)

  14. Evonne says

    i miss okinawa!!!!!!!!! i was there from 83-86 3rd-5th grades.. we lived on Kadena…..
    reading through this brought back a lot of memories… my mom wasn’t quite as adventurous as your mom, but we went to the japanese markets more than the commissary…. i hope to one day get back and take my husband to see where a big part of my childhood memories are from…. thanx for the trip down memory lane!! <3

  15. says

    I’ved lived on Okinawa now for 7 years and have truly loved the experience. I don’t know how long they will remain the top holders for the oldest living people. The younger generations are more enamored with western foods and smoking. I’ve been really hard pressed to find someone who will teach me how to cook the more traditional foods.
    I can say that they definitely do not eat like we do in terms of portion size. I had to get used to that when I first started dining out with my Okinawan friends.

    I really enjoyed your post!

  16. Aoi says

    Wow, you may have even eaten some of the fish my dad sold to some of the vendors outside Gate 2! ;) I’m half-Okinawan, and I miss it dearly after 11 years away. Thanks for this article!

  17. Lori says

    I stumbled upon your blog, in some werid fashion. However, I was a Student Teacher in Okinawa at the Kadena Airforce Base. I could so smell the smell of Gate 2. We also spent so much time exploring the Island while we were there. Did you ever go to the ” hot wash cloth factory” ? Thank you so much for sharing and helping me to remember a wonderful time in my life.

    Lori

  18. says

    Do Okinawans eat “generous amounts of pork?” Perhaps the younger generation. The elders’ diet is whole-grain vegetable based, a time-honored practice that walks hand in hand with Hara Haci Bu.

    • Jenny says

      The elders’ diet was primarily composed of fish, vegetables and some whole grain and it was cooked in GENEROUS amounts of pork fat.

      • Kate Florio says

        I am guessing that are equivalent to pork fat would be butter!? There is an advertisement on TV that I like a lot – it’s the one about ranch dressing, where all the kids rushed to the stand with the vegetables because there is Ranch dressing in which to dip the vegetables. So, whether we cook the vegetables in butter or we dip the vegetables and ranch dressing, at least it’s better than not having any vegetables at all – at least that would be my guess!

  19. J says

    I just wanted to point out that much of this article is about your view on the Okinawa traditional diet you witnessed as a child – not all that long ago. I suspect that what Okinawas ate at this time was not actually their traditional diet – it was much modernized. I am very curious more about what their traditional diet consisted of long ago, like when their current centarians were young.

  20. says

    I had no idea you were another military brat! I, too, found much of my love of food, culture, and health through my travels, except we spent most of our time in Europe. It’s great to cross paths, and I absolutely love the way you weave together a story.

  21. Janknitz says

    “Do Okinawans eat “generous amounts of pork?” Perhaps the younger generation. The elders’ diet is whole-grain vegetable based, a time-honored practice that walks hand in hand with Hara Haci Bu.”

    I grew up on the island in the sixties, the island was still recovering from WWII. The people who are elders now did NOT have a whole-grain based diet. How could they when grain, except for rice, did not grow there?

    The diet was omnivorous. I too, had an adventurous mom. I remember a lot of vegetables, a lot of fish, seafood, and sea vegetables. I hated Goya so I avoided that. There was plenty of meat– I remember chicken, eggs, beef, and pork was ubiquitous. There was some fermented tofu, lots of pickled vegetables and kimchi. I don’t remember ever eating sweet potato except perhaps in tempura. Rice was served with every meal as it is in Japan, and noodles were common. Our Okinawan maid (it was the 60’s!) made us her own versions of local dishes, always meat based.

    I find it ridiculous to hear anyone claim the Okinawan diet is “starch-based” or “whole grain”. Okinawans even ate habu (local poisonous snake) and mongoose when other sources of meat were scarce.

    There are many factors that contributed to Okinawan longevity, but it is a falsehood to claim that a nearly vegetarian diet was a factor. There were indeed generous portions of meat, fish, and fowl and nothing went to waste.

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