We all know that diet plays a huge role in well being and the quality of life that we have. An interesting fact from the CIA World Factbook tells us that the average life expectancy in the U.S. for babies born today is 78.37 years old. In Japan, this is almost 4 years higher at 82.25 years old. Of course, there are many more factors other than simply diet that determine life expectancy. For instance, in the U.S, there is more gun crime, in other words – more murders. There are also much greater problems surrounding drugs. On top of this, there are greater disparities in wealth between the haves and the have nots. However, the fact remains that the Japanese diet is regarded as one of the healthiest in the world. This is what we are going to take a closer look at just now.
Japan is an island country and fishing plays a big part in the country’s economy. The towns and cities are full of sushi restaurants that make use of gimmicks like the sushi train and touch panel ordering from your table. Fish is a great source of quality protein. It is low in saturated fat yet contains high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids. In studies of the effects of fish oils on brain power, the research indicates that these essential fatty acids have a role to play in improved brain function. The Japanese certainly eat fish more regularly than Americans. From my time spent in Japan, I typically ate fish at least once every two or three days. Many Japanese eat it more regularly than this. Housewives usually alternate the ingredients for their main evening meal between fish and meat. Grilled fish for breakfast is also very common.
Even though Japan is home to sumo wrestling, the incidence of obesity is very low. Compared to the United States where the incidence of obesity is nearing 30% for many states, it is clear that the Japanese diet is much better than the typical American diet as far as weight control is concerned. Part of this is certainly cultural. Society at large still deems a woman’s place to be in the home. I am not interested in talking about the rights and wrongs of this attitude. In Japan, it is simply a way of life. Feeding their families is one of the many important tasks that housewives fulfill every day. Great price is taken in preparing oishii (delicious) and healthy foods, for the men (who work hard) and the children (who study hard). This is the Japanese way.
Vegetables play a huge role in Japanese cooking. It is interesting that in general, everyone eats lots of vegetables yet vegetarianism is not very popular at all. The diet could be considered an alkaline diet by Western standards. However, the Japanese have very little need to alkalize because their diet is much more balanced than the acid diets of the West. Cabbage, Chinese cabbage, broccoli and spinach are all eaten regularly. Since Japanese foods often come out in small dishes, it never seems like you have to eat your vegetables. They are simply a welcome part of the meal. The cabbage is often in soups and nabe (hot pots). Miso and peanut sauces are often used to add flavor to broccoli and spinach.
A huge part of Japanese meals involves eating rice. If you know any Japanese people, you should ask them if they think it is strange not to eat rice every day. This might seem like a really strange concept to get your head around but for Japanese people, it is normal. After returning home from Japan, it took me a while to get used to not eating rice daily. I got rice cravings and in a strange way it almost felt like having withdrawal symptoms. Top quality Zojirushi rice cookers are now also solid in the United States. So people here can make rice just as easily as in Japan. The only hard part is tracking down the best quality rice to cook. Nutritionally, rice is a great source of carbohydrates but is very low in fat. It accompanies all sorts of dishes well. If you think that plain rice is a bit boring then you can almost as easily prepare all kinds of mixed rice dishes with a rice cooker. There are plenty of Japanese cookbooks that can give you ideas.
Soy bean products are another interesting part of the Japanese diet. These are good sources of low fat protein. While the images of tofu and natto are distinctly Japanese, Japan is a net importer of these beans, primarily from the United States. While they are made from the same raw materials, tofu is very bland while natto has a stronger taste. The smell is enough to put many people off. It is different from things like Vegemite and Marmite. However if you like those flavors, then you will probably enjoy natto. I’m not sure if you will ever get used to the stickiness though.
Overall the Japanese diet is balanced. The National Library of Medicine tells us:
A balanced diet means getting the right types and amounts of foods and drinks to supply nutrition and energy for maintaining body cells, tissues, and organs, and for supporting normal growth and development.
Japanese people eat much less fast food than Americans. Although, over recent years, the amount of Western foods (aka fast foods) available in Japan has increased. So has their levels of obesity. Do you think this is just coincidence?
Carbonates soft drinks also play a smaller role in people’s daily routines. This cuts out vast numbers of empty calories from the typical Japanese diet. Instead, green tea is a popular drink that is enjoyed by the young and old alike. There are many claimed benefits of drinking green tea. In a study published in the Journal of Nutrition, the findings:
suggest that green tea [...] consumption enhances exercise-induced changes in abdominal fat
Overall, the Japanese diet is not hugely different from Western diets. However, at many points, they seem to consume things that are slightly healthier than in the West, e.g. higher quantities of fresh vegetables, less fast foods, green tea instead of soda. So when all these components are combined, the health benefits are pronounced. The beauty is that Japanese food tastes great. Also, in the U.S. today, there are plenty of Japanese restaurants and bento (lunch box) stores. You should consider trying out some of these foods. You never know, you might like it!