The Two Okinawan Diet Rules (or How I’m Getting Leaner During the Holidays)

Like many people, I tend to overeat during the holidays, from Thanksgiving through New Year’s. It’s kinda part of the tradition to consume huge amounts of food, you know?

And like many others, I also tend to gain weight during the holidays — some people can gain 5 or more pounds (though for most it’s usually only a couple pounds).

Not this time around.

On Thanksgiving, while I enjoyed time with my family, and while everyone else pigged out, I ate moderately and wisely. And I felt great about it. I also got a great workout in the morning after — heavy deadlifts followed by two brutal 10-minute weight circuits and finished with 15 minutes of hard intervals.

This will be the healthiest holiday season ever for me. I’m also starting a meal plan and exercise routine that will have me drop some fat while gaining muscle by New Years, I promise. I’ll publish more about this plan after I see the results (3 pounds dropped already).

But the really cool thing I started on Thanksgiving comes from the Okinawan people (who don’t live too far away from my home, the beautiful island of Guam).

The Okinawan Diet Rules

The Okinawans (the indiginous people of the Ryukyu islands in Japan) are famous for having the longest life expectancy in the world. This single fact has had them studied from every angle, from diet to lifestyle to genetics to environment. And while all of these have played a factor, there’s no doubt that their traditional diet has played a big part — when they eat a more modern, Western-style diet, they don’t live as long or as healthy.

So what’s their secret? Actually, there are two secrets (and they’re not really secrets), and I used these rules to guide my eating on Thanksgiving (and beyond):

Rule 1. Eat to 80% full. The Okinawans call this rule “Hara Hachi Bu”, and if you haven’t tried it, you should. I did this on Thanksgiving — while I usually stuff myself with all the good food, I just ate until I was about 80% full. Of course, there’s no way to know exactly how full you are, but it’s a guideline. And as our brains are 10-20 minutes behind our stomachs, it usually turns out that when you think you’re 80% full, you’re actually full … while when we eat to 100% full, we are usually overstuffing ourselves.

The result of this rule for Okinawans is that they end up eating fewer calories than most people. They tend not to gain too much weight as a result, and coupled with their active lifestyles (they farm and garden and generally stay active, even into their 100s), it keeps them very healthy.

The result for the rest of us is that eating fewer calories will keep the extra pounds off. If we pair this with the next rule and an active lifestyle, we can actually lose weight during the holidays.

Rule 2: Eat healthy foods, mostly plants. Way before Michael Pollan wrote about his simple rules for eating healthy, the Okinawans had this down. They eat way more veggies than most people (mostly green and yellow ones), as well as whole grains, tofu, fish and other legumes. They eat very little sugar, and very little meat, dairy or eggs. This contradicts low-carb diets such as the Zone, Atkins, Paleo and others — I’m not saying those don’t work for whatever your goals are, but I am saying that a mostly plant-based diet has been proven to work well for the Okinawans.

I used these guidelines during Thanksgiving. I don’t eat meat or fish, so I stuck with veggies and sweet potatoes and a mango-ginger tofu dish I made. Again, I ate to about 80% full, and loved it. OK, I also had some pumpkin pie (made it myself) but as I ate mostly healthy and didn’t overeat, I felt great about it.

Can you follow these rules throughout the holidays, and the rest of your life as well? The Okinawans did it (although the younger generation has changed to a more Western lifestyle and has suffered for it) and I think I can too, most of the time. Treats are great in moderation, but moderation is the key word.

Get Active Too

I’m adding more exercise to these Okinawan diet rules (not to be confused with the commercial Okinawan diet, which I think is unnecessary if you follow these rules). The extra activity will help burn any extra calories I take in (which won’t be a huge amount) and I hope lean me out even more. My goal is to be in the best shape of my life by New Year’s — why wait until then to start?

The key is to just get active. Exercise regularly if you can, play sports, toss a ball around with your family. My nephews and I tossed a football around and worked up a sweat durng Thanksgiving lunch, and the next day during a day-after-Thanksgiving dinner with my dad I went swimming with the kids.

For those who are curious, I’ll list my current workout routine. I don’t expect anyone to follow it, especially if you’re not very active already.

  • Mon: Running — intervals combined with steady state for 40-60 mins
  • Tue: Heavy weights plus metabolic-conditioning strength circuits plus 15-mins of high-intensity cardio intervals
  • Wed: Running — hill sprint repeats combined with steady state for 40-60 mins
  • Thu: Heavy weights plus metabolic-conditioning strength circuits plus 15-mins of high-intensity cardio intervals
  • Fri: Running — longer distance running (over an hour, sometimes two) including some intervals
  • Sat: Heavy weights plus metabolic-conditioning strength circuits plus 15-mins of high-intensity cardio intervals
  • Sun: rest (although I often play soccer with the kids or do yardwork or sometimes go hiking)

I try to mix some yardwork and other activities in there when I’m not too tired. Oh, and I’m doing a marathon in Honolulu on Dec. 14!

So what are your health and fitness goals this holiday season? Do you plan to just eat whatever you like, or are you getting leaner too?

This is a guest post from Leo Babauta, the author of the great site Zen Habits. If you have not already done so, please visit his insightful blog.

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