Lessons Learned from Asian Cultures

Every spring I teach one of my favorite classes—Global Nutrition. It is the study of how other cultures value health, food and wellness. Asian diets and culture are one of my favorite sections because I believe they have an understanding to the keys to living a long and healthy life.

In many past columns I have mentioned “hara hachi bu”, which is the philosophy of eating until you are 80% full. This is a very important Asian belief for us to remember because it puts us in touch with our internal hunger and satiety cues rather than paying attention to the external cues like the amount of food on our plate or on the table.

Here is a new concept related to increased longevity and wellbeing to think about. What is your Ikigia? Roughly translated, ikigai means, “the reason for which you wake up in the morning.” Ikigai, is your sense of purpose and is a very personal experience that manifests itself in many ways. Ikigai can be your job, a person– like your children or your significant other or it can be your love of the outdoors, that new mountain bike or road bike that is sitting in your garage beaconing you for a ride. It could also be your garden or your kitchen where you love to spend hours creating new, healthy recipes. The child in me like to recall Piglet’s comment to Winnie the Pooh when he asks what is the first thing Pooh thinks of when he wakes up in the morning—HONEY! Honey might be construed as Pooh’s Ikigai.

Whatever it is, we know that there is great power in purpose. We see this in men and women in their 70’s who compete in triathlons or other athletic events. We see it in centenarians who are still harvesting foods from their gardens. Or those who love to travel at age 95 and learn about new clutures, food and flavors. And yet, for others, their purpose may remain hidden.  If you are unclear as to what your ikigai is, ask yourself these questions:

1) What kinds of activities and tasks most energize me at home and at work?

2) What do I love learning, reading or talking about?

3) What do I love doing so much that I would do it for free?

People with a strong sense of purpose have boosted immune systems.  They also enjoy lower stress hormones (such as cortisone which increases blood sugar), and are better able to deal with the difficulties that life throws their way. In general we can say that they are healthier.

So, the two lessons we can learn from Asian cultures for a long and healthy life are to eat mindfully by practicing hara hachi bu and find your ikigai!

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