The Japanese practice that will change your eating habits

Sometimes less is more.

Centuries from now, when A.I. is growing its own flesh and constantly tweaking its code for more longevity, it will study the strange practices of Homo sapiens. Among the many fascinating and strange relics it will stumble upon will be the all-you-can-eat buffet. The notion that an animal would purposefully gorge itself, and then keep going, and going, will certainly make A.I. shake its head in disbelief.


Today, however, we're living in a time when portion sizes have increased dramatically; 54 percent of Americans eat until their plate is clean, regardless of whether or not they’re hungry. To some, leaving food on your plate is a sign of disrespect, but that’s a mindset that needs to change. Sometimes you’re just not that hungry, and there's no reason to continue.

Eating until you’re “busting at the seams” becomes a habit. You become desensitized to your body’s natural production of leptin, a hormone that inhibits hunger. Meanwhile, the hormone ghrelin goes to town, tricking yourself into thinking you need that extra serving. The result is obesity and all the diseases that follow.


Three words can help: hara hachi bu.

While the constant winner in terms of diets always seems to be Mediterranean, there’s also the way you eat. One practice to consider is hara hachi bu, a teaching attributed to Confucius that instructs you to stop eating when your belly is 80 percent full—roughly 1,800 to 1,900 calories a day. (American buffet fans will be displeased to learn we’re number one in the world in caloric intake, at 2,200 to a whopping 3,300.) This principle is practiced on the island of Okinawa, which has the longest life expectancy in the world. Interestingly, geographic data, whether intentionally or coincidentally, shows they follow this principle to a tee: 

For adults, total protein and lipid intakes were about the same, but energy intake was 20% less than the Japanese national average. The rates of death due to cerebral vascular disease, malignancy, and heart disease on Okinawa were only 59%, 69%, and 59%, respectively, of those for the rest of Japan.

While the exact origins of this principle are tough to pin down, Book 7 of Analects of Confucius instructs:

When the Master was eating by the side of a mourner, he never ate to the full.

While in Book 10

He would not eat in excess, even when presented with refined grain or finely minced meat.

In his book, The Three Pillars of Zen, Philip Kapleau cites a 14th-century text, Zazen Yojinki, which further instructs:

Eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor.

Regardless of exact origins, calorie restriction has proven to be an effective method for weight loss, overall health, and longevity. It has recently been shown to reduce age-related risks of diseases of dementia, cancer, and diabetes. Though extreme instances of caloric restriction (50 percent or more of your regular intake) might have its own problems, 20 percent is certainly a goal many would find beneficial.

Easier said than done. By design, our stomachs hold 48 ounces at full capacity. Though overeating doesn’t exactly stretch our stomachs, it does change the amount of food it can hold: 

Think of it more as "increasing stomach elasticity" than "permanently stretching your stomach." The scientific term for this is "distensibility"—defined as "the ability of something to become stretched."

Youtube:

It takes several weeks for you to change your stomach’s distensibility; the occasional binge won’t change its structure. But regularly overeating will. If you become accustomed to 2,500 calories per day, you’ll likely feel famished at 2,000, or 80 percent. Yet a few weeks at 2,000 will again change your satiety levels. The bar then becomes 1,600, if that is enough to subsist. It depends on where you start and how you've gotten to where you are.

While we’re all creatures of habit, our emotional connection to food makes caloric restriction particularly challenging. Calorie counting creates its own neurosis, though at the beginning that might prove an effective method. Basic principles to apply include not allowing yourself to get hungry, as you’ll likely increase your chances of overeating; eat slowly, which greatly aids the digestion process; eat plenty of vegetables, especially if you’re accustomed to eating lots of complex carbs and protein; and choose smaller plates—sorry buffet fans.

Whether or not Confucius created the 80 percent rule, his message was moderation in everything. Given our cultural struggle with obesity and diseases of affluence, it’s a lesson we can certainly institute 2,500 years later a half-world away.

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

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What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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