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What I Learned about Portion Control from the Japanese

nutrition weight loss Nov 20, 2017

Many years ago when I was freshly out of college I worked as a Foreign Fisheries Observer in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska. This was in the early 1980’s and a great way for me to parlay my B.S. in Biology into a decent paying job (which was a rarity back then).   This particular job required me to live aboard foreign fishing vessels for months at a time, often as the only woman! I did 3 trips in all, 2 Japanese and one Soviet (this WAS the 1980’s so it wasn’t Russia then, but the U.S.S.R.).

I was taught as a child that the way to be a polite guest was to clean my plate. “Starving children in Europe” and other phrases like that to help me feel grateful and not too fussy about what was on my plate. I was a pretty picky eater as a young child which only was widened when I attended sleepaway camp and had to eat whatever I was given or there would be no eating at all. Plus I had worked up a pretty good appetite from being outdoors and active all day!

During my first trip I was assigned to work on  the Anyo Maru. It was a small Japanese fishing trawler and I was the only woman on board. The crew cheered when they first saw me. They were happy to see a woman on board. Something curious started happening at mealtimes. When I finshed my food, they would bring me more of the food I had finished. And the food was delicious! Sushi! Sashimi! I wasn’t too crazy for the fish head soup, but at least I knew it was freshly caught. Not wanting to be too “high maintenance”, I ate everything! I didn’t want to insult anyone so I just kept eating whatever they brought me! Soon enough I was gaining weight but I still didn’t want to hurt their feelings by not cleaning my plate so I kept on eating whatever they brought me!

After 2 months on the ship I had gained 15 lbs! After I came back on shore I resumed jogging and vigorous exercising to try to get the weight off. And slowly most it did come off. It also helped that my next ship was a Soviet vessel (The Zelinograd!) where let’s just say, the food was NOT so great (I became really tired very quickly of borscht, greasy noodles and fried fish day after day after day after day for 3 months!) so I often skipped eating.

My 3rd boat (the Yamato Maru) was once again going to be Japanese and I worried about overeating and gaining weight. Between trips I often would socialize with other observers and one day someone mentioned that you should ALWAYS leave some food left on your plate or the Japanese will think that you are still hungry and bring you MORE food! What????!!?!?!?


I decided to retrain myself to be perfectly OK with not finishing my meals and sometimes/often even throwing food away! This was HUGE for me. I am usually extremely mindful about not being wasteful but I had to loosen my grip in order to not be “waistful” ( see what I did there?)

Suddenly I had to constantly tune into my body and go with my intuition on how much I should be eating! When my belly started to feel full, I learned to stop eating.

The Japanese cook on the ships also typically brought many small bowls full of different things. Some miso soup, some rice, sashimi, some fish, some seaweed salad type thing, some pickled vegetables. So I would pick out a little of what I wanted here and there with my rice and sort of graze my meals. Always tuning into my belly and my body to determine when I should stop.

I learned to eat this way and kept at it even after I came back home. This was life-changing for me. Instead of having my mind and my eyes determine portion size, my belly and stomach sensations started determining portions.

My diet has evolved a lot since then as far as what I eat and what I do not eat (I was not gluten free then and I went back to being vegetarian/vegan for many years, then started eating animal protein again and kept it during the birthing/breastfeeding years and now I am mostly paleo) but I still tune into my body and let it tell me when I am finished eating. Even if I need to take a lot home from a restaurant. (Restaurant portions are always too large in the United States). I have kept that habit and I am grateful that I was able to have that learning experience around food and to retrain myself away from eating what I “should” so as not to insult someone, towards eating only what I really needed to feel good in my body

You can with a little mindfulness adopt this style of eating even if you don’t have the opportunity to go to Japan or to another country which typically eats in this fashion. If you are eating dinner with family, take smaller portions to start and tune into your belly as you chew and swallow every bite. Savor the taste and textureal complexities. Remember, eating should not be a race! If you are at a restaurant in the United States, go there knowing ahead of time that the portion sizes are going to be quite large and it is fine to share an entrée or to only eat part of it and take home the rest. This method is also a lot easier to adopt if your blood sugar and insulin is balanced because your hunger level is not artificially increased from consuming carbohydrates and sugar. Sugar and carbohydrates (as well as alcohol) can really throw some people out of balance and away from tuning into their bodies.

I am thankful that I learned that lesson fairly early in my life so that I was able to avoid some of the overeating pitfalls that were already developing in my life. I grew up with some big eaters and later as a young adult lived with some more big eaters and it took some inner personal work to find my center so that I could learn what the proper portion size was for me instead of using my eyes and mind to determine what my portion size should be based upon what everyone around me was doing. I hope that you find this useful if you are struggling with your portion sizes.

My practice focuses on gut health! I would like to invite you to work one on one with me in person if you are local, or long distance through video or phone if you are not local. I am currently accepting new patients. You may also schedule a FREE 15 minute phone consult with me to see if you and I are a good fit for each other! To schedule any appointment, you can do this online at or by calling my office (303) 443-2206 M-F 8:30-5 Mountain time to speak with my receptionist. I hope to hear from you soon! Be well!


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