World diet’s – Japan: What They Eat, How They Prepare and Eat It
AVERAGE LIFE EXPECTANCY TOTAL POPULATION: 82.12 years
PERCENTAGE OF OVERWEIGHT ADULTS: 18.1 male; 27.0 female
PERCENTAGE OF OBESE ADULTS: 1.5 male; 1.8 female
MEAT CONSUMPTION PER PERSON (2002): 43.9 kg
DIET COMPOSITION (PERCENTAGE OF TOTAL NUTRIENTS):
For many years now Japan has been my go-to ethnic cuisine country of choice. It’s probably my favorite place to visit for work, because I know I can always come up with a quick, easy meal for a client without too much legwork and without compromising on selection or taste.
All World Dieters should cultivate a taste for Japanese food, because it can actually prolong your life. Remember these impressive statistics: The Japanese rank number three when it comes to life expectancy, living an average of 82.12 years, according to the CIA’s World Factbook. Not only that, but Japan’s “healthy life expectancy”—a measure of how long people can feed, dress, and take care of themselves without assistance—also tops the list, at 75 years. (By contrast, Americans rank fiftieth and twenty-ninth on these lists, respectively, with an average life expectancy of 78.11 years and a healthy life expectancy of 69.3 years.) Of the 126 million people living in Japan, more than one in five is age sixty-five or older, and more than 7 million are eighty or older.2 Not only do Japanese women live longer than anyone else on the planet, but they’re also among the slimmest people: only 3 percent of Japanese women are considered obese, compared to a shocking 33 percent of U.S. women, according to the International Association for the Study of Obesity.
When you consider the astronomically high smoking rate of the Japanese—approximately 51 percent of Japanese men smoke—and their suicide rate (one of the highest in the world), these statistics are even more impressive.3 The Japanese must have a really healthy diet to counteract the effects of all that nicotine and depression.
WHAT THEY EAT
The traditional Japanese diet, which is entirely different from that of almost every other culture in the world, plays a big role in these enviable statistics. The residents of the Japanese island of Okinawa—which has more centenarians (people age one hundred or older) than anywhere else on earth—eat an average of seven servings of grains daily, in addition to seven servings of vegetables and fruits and two servings of soy products. Okinawans almost never eat dairy products or meat.4
The rest of Japan has similarly healthy eating habits. The Japanese diet is built around rice, fish, and vegetables—foods naturally high in carbohydrates and fiber and low in calories and fat. In fact, the Japanese consume nearly 200 fewer calories a day than the average American.5 And remarkably, despite eating so much less food, their diet is much better balanced than ours, with ingredients that contain just about every nutrient the body needs. How is that possible? Japanese nutrition guidelines suggest that people eat an average of thirty different foods every day.6 The Japanese also get their protein primarily from fish high in omega-3 fatty acids and only rarely eat the red meat that Americans consume in such heart stopping quantities. And instead of sugary beverages packed with empty calories, the Japanese drink mostly antioxidant-rich green tea.
Many principles of Japanese dining are universal and entirely commonsense. The Japanese place a premium on going to bed and waking up at prescribed times, as well as on eating meals at the same times every day—both routines that can help regulate metabolism and prevent overeating. And while their diet includes a broad range of vegetables and fruits all year round, the Japanese typically eat food only when it’s in season. They also indulge in dessert far less frequently and in much smaller quantities than we do. Instead of cookies or ice cream, the Japanese generally end their meals with fresh fruit.
WHAT’S IN IT
Cruciferous Vegetables: The Japanese build their meals around fresh vegetables, rather than using greens as a side dish or a garnish for a big meat dish as we do. The Japanese eat cabbage and other cruciferous veggies such as broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, and kale at just about every meal.
Cucumbers are also big in Japan. Remember that sunomono that bore such a close resemblance to the uborka salata my grandparents brought to Canada from Hungary? Other popular vegetables in Japan are ones that we would scarcely recognize, much less eat on a regular basis, including bamboo shoots, burdock, and lotus root.
Soybeans and Soy-Based Products: Packed with protein and isoflavones—which prevent everything from osteoporosis to cancer—soy is a wonderful, versatile food. Along with fish, soy—in the form of tofu, natto, and miso—provides the major source of protein in the Japanese diet. In fact, the average Okinawan eats up to 100 grams of soy each day, while the average American eats close to zero. You’ll find soy in many different forms, including edamame, or boiled green soy beans, which are a popular appetizer in Japanese restaurants and a great all-around snack. Edamame are low in calories (about 40 calories per handful) and high in protein and fiber, not to mention delicious and filling.
Soba (Buckwheat Noodles): Traditional Japanese cooks make noodles out of nourishing, easy-to-digest complex carbohydrates such as buckwheat. Despite its name, buckwheat has no relation to wheat, which makes it a safe alternative for anyone avoiding gluten (found in wheat, oats, rye, and barley). In fact, like quinoa, buckwheat isn’t even a grain—it’s a seed related to rhubarb and sorrel.
The health benefits of buckwheat are staggering. It’s a rich source of fiber, magnesium, and all eight essential amino acids. Buckwheat also contains an antioxidant called rutin, a flavonoid that can lower your risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure, as well as D-chiro-inositol, which drives carbohydrates into your muscles without raising insulin levels.
Buck wheat flour is the key ingredient in a number of different cultures’ traditional dishes. French galettes, Russian bliny, and Ukrainian hrechanykyare all buckwheat-based dishes. Kasha, or roasted buckwheat groats, is a common eastern European breakfast or side dish. In Japan, buckwheat flour is most often used to make soba noodles, the Japanese answer to spaghetti. The Japanese incorporate soba noodles into a range of different dishes, both hot (as in a vegetable broth) and cold (as in a salad). These delicious, nourishing noodles are increasingly popular in the United States as well, and you can buy them in most midsize grocery stores across the country.
Shirataki: Shirataki is another fantastic alternative to traditional starchy pastas. These noodles are made out of a variety of root vegetables (most of which are native to Asia) and occasionally have tofu added for a smoother texture. They are extremely low-carb—and extremely delicious! The Japanese eat other noodles, too, including harusame, e-fu, bifun, and cellophane noodles (made from mung bean starch). If you see any of these noodles on a menu, why not give them a try?
Fish High in Omega-3 Fatty Acids: Fish, the cornerstone of the Japanese diet, is a much healthier source of protein than the red meat that’s the staple of the American diet. It’s lower-fat, and oily fish such as salmon, tuna, herring, and mackerel (a Japanese favorite) are rich in omega-3s, which are essential for good cardiovascular health. Fish oil can also increase your mental alertness and even help combat depression. Fish is a great source of selenium and iodine as well. Be sure to choose the lower-mercury fish, which I list on page 107.
Sushi, and its rice-free counterpart sashimi, are probably the most quintessentially Japanese foods there are. People love sushi for the simplicity and beauty of its presentation. Void of heavy sauces, oils, and seasonings, sushi also contains no added fats and happens to be extremely low in calories. Although it’s mild-flavored, sushi comes in so many different forms—from nigiri to hand rolls to maki—that you couldn’t possibly get sick of it. It’s filling, too—what more could you ask of a food?
Seaweed: Japan is an island, so it’s only logical that the Japanese would regularly feast on seaweed and other sea vegetables. Lucky for them, seaweed is rich in iodine and other health-boosting minerals and microelements. It’s also an excellent source of fiber. And, best of all, seaweed tastes delicious, adding a rich, savory flavor to a wide variety of foods. Try sprinkling it on salads or adding it to soups. Of the many different types of seaweed, nori and kombu are the most popular varieties in Japan.
Nori: This mild-flavored, cold-water seaweed is most often processed into the thin sheets used to wrap sushi rolls. The Japanese also eat nori on its own as a snack. You can try toasting this versatile seaweed and crumbling it over soups, salads, and veggies.
Kombu: This large, warm-water kelp is the seaweed used to flavor miso soup. Some Japanese chefs treat kombu as we would a bay leaf, adding it to rice or a stew during cooking, then discarding it before serving. You can also add kombu to a marinade for meat, fish, or vegetables.
Wakame: This is a kelp that looks and tastes like spinach lasagna. It’s similar to kombu and can be used in many of the same ways, particularly in soups and salads and as a topping for other dishes. I use a lot of wakame in my recipes. Soak dried wakame in water, and it will expand to about ten times its size. To serve as a vegetable, cut out the central vein after soaking, then simmer for 10 minutes. Or cut into small pieces and serve in a salad. Because of its kelp content, wakame is rich in protein, calcium, iodine, magnesium, iron, and folate. Kelp also is rich in lignans, which may provide protection against certain cancers. Lower rates of breast cancer have been reported in Japanese women who eat a diet high in kelp.
Hijiki: This brown seaweed grows wild on the rocky coast of Japan. It’s a traditional food that has been used as part of a balanced diet in Japan for centuries. Hijiki is known to be rich in dietary fiber and essential minerals such as calcium, iron, and magnesium. According to Japanese folklore, hijiki aids health and beauty, and the thick, lustrous hair of the Japanese people is connected to their regular consumption of small amounts of hijiki. The Japanese usually eat hijiki with other foods, such as vegetables or fish. It may be added to soups or foods that have been steamed, boiled, marinated in soy sauce or fish sauce, or cooked in oil. Hijiki may also be mixed in with rice for sushi, but it is not used as a wrap to prepare sushi.
Beverage of Choice: Green Tea
The choice of beverage in Japan is another reason the Japanese diet tends to be much lower in sugar than ours. Rather than reach for a supersize soda loaded with sugar and calories, the Japanese favor heart-healthy, antioxidant-rich green tea, which has been shown to fight certain cancers, ease pain, and even burn calories. Kombucha, a sweet tea made with the kombucha mushroom, is another Japanese favorite. This drink has become increasingly popular and available in the United States.
Mushrooms: About half of the World Diet countries have a favorite food in common: mushrooms. These yummy fungi consist mostly of water and therefore have very few calories. They also provide a wide range of nutrients, such as potassium and selenium, which can protect cells from free radicals in the environment. Shiitake mushrooms, which are used in all sorts of Japanese dishes, have even been used to fight cold and flu symptoms.
HOW THEY PREPARE IT
Boiling: The Japanese boil the staple of their diet, white rice, with edamame, spinach, mushrooms, and other vegetables.
Grilling: Grilled fish is common in Japan. Cooking meat and vegetables on a hibachi (the Japanese equivalent of a barbecue pit) is another treasured tradition. Yakitori—bits of grilled chicken served on a stick, shish kebab style—is a popular street food in Japan.
Robata is another traditional Japanese grilling method that says a great deal about Japanese cuisine in general. Basically, all the ingredients are grilled right in front of you, then laid out with no adornment at all: no sauces, no spices or strong seasonings, no oils, nothing but clean, healthy food, grilled to perfection. The flavor of the food—whatever it might be, a fresh vegetable or a slab of fish—is unobscured and pure. On my first visit to arobata house in Tokyo, I remember thinking, I never knew what red snapper tasted like before!
Cooking Oil of Choice: Sesame, Soybean, or Canola
Though many of their dishes, like sushi and sashimi, are made without any oil at all, the Japanese do use sesame, canola, or soybean oil in their cooking.
Steaming: The Japanese steam rice, fish, clams, and tofu. Steamed buns, with either salty or sweet fillings, are another staple food.
Serving Raw: Sushi and sashimi are the most famous foods the Japanese eat raw, but they also enjoy a wide selection of salads and raw vegetables.
Deep-Frying: Tempura is about the only big category of Japanese food that’s fried. To make tempura, vegetables or seafood is lightly coated with batter and fried. The Japanese occasionally fry tofu as well.
HOW THEY EAT IT
It isn’t just the ingredients or the cooking methods that have kept the Japanese healthy to such an advanced age; it’s the way they eat their food, too. Over the centuries, they’ve developed a series of dietary guidelines—some practical, some philosophical—to keep them slim and spry.
They know when to say when.
One explanation for Japan’s ranking as number 163 on the list of the world’s fattest countries is hara hachi bunme, the practice of eating until just about 80 percent full. Instead of going for seconds or dessert right away, the Japanese are taught to wait twenty to thirty minutes after reaching this 80 percent threshold. More likely than not, their bodies will no longer crave any additional food.
“Eat like a crane” is a popular regional proverb in Japan (and Korea as well).7 The narrow shape of a crane’s beak means that the bird can only pick at its food; wolfing down a tremendous amount all at once is not, anatomically speaking, an option.
The next time you sit down to eat, try to practice a little hara hachi bunme and “eat like a crane.” Chew your food thoroughly, as the Japanese do, and stop before you’re full. Eat slowly and deliberately. As you begin to feel full, put down your fork and let your body digest what you’ve just eaten.
They believe that presentation is everything.
Mingei, the union of form and function, is a core principle of Japanese culture that extends to their relationship with food. The Japanese do not view food merely as nourishment. It’s also a satisfying, sensual pleasure—-a truth that’s too often lost in Americans’ frenzied, drive-through lives.
In Japan, a good meal should stimulate all five senses, including sight. Think about the beautiful burst of color inside a sushi roll: a perfect testimony to the pride that Japanese chefs have always taken in the visual presentation of their food and a concept that we have pretty much lost in North America. When you’re in a food court, your senses are assaulted by a mishmash of sights and sounds and smells, but when you’re in a Japanese restaurant, the décor tends to be minimalist, which allows you to focus all your attention on the food in front of you. You can approach your meal with a clear palate and a clear mind. Pausing to enjoy the beauty of your food may also help you slow down to savor every bite. And as we know, eating slower generally translates to eating less.
An extension of mingei is the Japanese concept of goshiki, which states that every meal should have at least five colors: white (rice, tofu, fish); yellow (scrambled eggs, squash); red or orange (carrots, sweet potatoes); green (any green vegetable); and black, dark purple, or brown (eggplant, seaweed). Goshiki ensures that a meal will please both the eyes and the palate—not to mention fulfill most nutritional requirements. The Japanese also strive to incorporate different cooking techniques into every meal. A typical bento lunch might include a boiled egg, fried rice, grilled vegetables, steamed salmon, and fresh fruit.
They separate their meals into distinct courses.
Part of the caloric control in Japanese food stems from the limited use of added fats in dishes such as sushi and tofu, but the moderate portions also play a big role. One way the Japanese limit portion size is by serving each course on a small, decorative dish or by using one plate divided into distinct compartments, as in the bento box. The Japanese make a point of enjoying each distinct flavor on its own.
This long-standing Japanese custom is another example of mingei, the marriage of form and function. Instead of heaping an entire meal onto a single massive plate, the Japanese devote an individual plate or bowl to each component. If the dish happens to be small, the amount of food put on it also will be small. Studies have shown that larger plates encourage larger portions and lead to the consumption of more total calories per meal.
This tradition not only limits portion size and promotes the Japanese ethos of food as a source of beauty and pleasure, but also serves to lengthen the duration of meals. Because even the tiniest course is given its own dish or compartment, the Japanese have developed the habit of eating small bits of food over a long period of time—pecking away slowly, just like a crane.
They treat red meat as an occasional side dish, not a main course.
Meat rarely plays a starring role in Japan. Vegetables, noodles, and rice have that honor. The liberal use of soy (primarily tofu) and heart-healthy fish instead of meat also keeps saturated fat levels low in traditional Japanese fare.
HOW THEY BURN IT
In previous centuries, the Japanese had a more active lifestyle than they do today. As more residents drive cars and take sedentary office jobs, the average Japanese weight is steadily creeping up. Still, to a much greater extent than Americans, the Japanese have a more active life. For the business of everyday life, they travel almost everywhere on foot. Tokyo is famous for its advanced subway system, and the vast majority of residents walk from their homes to the nearest subway stop. A recent study found that people who use “active transportation” (which means they have to walk to public transportation hubs) burn five to nine pounds of additional fat every year, compared to just two pounds in the United States, where we drive everywhere.8
More formal fitness activities have also made inroads into Japanese life. The Japanese corporate culture encourages good health and physical fitness, both of which have been shown to boost productivity during business hours.
Breakfast: A healthy Japanese breakfast might consist of steamed rice, miso, and either grilled fish, a small omelet, or a seaweed salad. Miso soup is a popular breakfast dish. This broth-based soup generally contains nutrient-packed tofu or soba noodles in addition to seaweed, and its high water content keeps the calories low. Another popular Japanese breakfast is chawanmushi, which literally means “steamed in an egg bowl.”Chawanmushi, an egg custard dish, is also eaten at lunch and dinner.
Lunch: A typical hot lunch might feature a rice or noodle bowl with fish or meat, or a frittata-like dish called okonomiyaki. For a cold lunch on the go, a Japanese might bring a bento box containing rice balls, a sushi roll, and an assortment of pickled vegetables.
Dinner: Dinner, the main meal of the day in Japan, is usually built around the same ingredients used at breakfast and lunch. It might feature robata—freshly grilled meat, vegetables, or fish with no added oils or seasonings. Another healthy option would be a dish of cold soba noodles with a side of sushi. To finish the meal, Japanese might have a cup of hot green tea.
• Elevate your enjoyment of your meals (and limit portion sizes) by putting a big emphasis on presentation.
How We Misinterpret It
Restaurants serving sushi and sashimi are becoming increasingly popular across the United States, even in small towns, but Americans tend to add local touches that are none too healthy, serving sushi rolls filled with cream cheese, for example, or mayonnaise—not exactly typical Japanese ingredients. American Japanese restaurants also serve a disproportionate amount of the unhealthiest item on the traditional Japanese menu, tempura. And the U.S. interpretation of chicken teriyaki is often overly salty.
• Break up your meal into separate courses to slow down your dining experience.
• Try to eat a wide variety of foods every day—the fresher, the better.
• Add more seaweed, fish, and soy to your diet.
1. For each country, the sources are the same. Average life expectancy: CIA, The 2009 World Factbook, estimate. Percentage of overweight/obese adults: World Health Organization, Global InfoBase, http://apps.who.int/infobase/report.aspx. Meat consumption: World Resources Institute, www.wri.org. Diet composition: tk
2. “Percentage of Japanese Aged 65 or Older Hits New High,” Associated Press Worldstream, September 17, 2007.
3. World Health Organization, Regional Office for the Western Pacific, “Smoking Statistics” (fact sheets, May 28, 2002); “Death Be Not Proud,” The Economist, May 1, 2008.
4. “The Secret of Life: Okinawans, The World’s Longest-Lived People, Have a Lot to Teach Americans on the Art of Reaching 100,” The Boston Globe, May 22, 2001.
5. “Smaller Portions Keep Japanese Fit and Trim,” Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, FL), September 25, 2007.
6. Asian Food Information Centre, “It’s a Small World After All: Dietary Guidelines Around the World,” 2004.
7. “Simple Living in Japan: Profile,” National Geographic, http://www.national geographic.com/healthyliving/index.html.
8. David Bassett, Jr., et al., “Walking, Cycling, and Obesity Rates in Europe, North America, and Australia,” Journal of Physical Activity and Health 5 (November 2008): 809.