Clearly, Japanese do not eat like Americans. That much is obvious. There’s a few weird myths about things like when the first cow was milked in Japan and the exact origin of things like sukiyaki (すき焼き), and those do have some relevance in a discussion about caloric intake and health, but they’re not all that important.
It’s also fair to note that what Americans perceive as Japanese cuisine is not necessarily what Japanese will eat on a regular basis. I get the impression that the American perception of Japanese food is probably a bit better than the American impression of Chinese or Korean cuisine, but it’s still not wholly accurate.
But the there’s about three reasons Japanese have such an easy time maintaining a healthy weight.
- Smaller portions
- Higher quantities of healthier foods.
So let’s break down how this works.
I think maybe the best way to explain the smaller portion thing is to talk about kaiseki (懐石) or formal Japanese dinner. I’ve been treated to this about twice and it is truly amazing. I am genuinely scared to ask how much it costs so I can’t necessarily recommend it, but if you’re able to partake, I would absolutely suggest that you do.
Kaiseki is a multi-course supper. It takes hours. And it is so cool. I have a huge appetite and the two times I was treated to this was while I was on a special martial arts training visit, so I was really hungry going in, and both times by the end I was absolutely stuffed. You will not leave kaiseki hungry. But to give you an idea the picture below is one course for one person.
I’m exaggerating a little, it’s not quite this crazy all the way through and depending on the chef and the theme they might highlight dishes a little more, but it is pretty typical to have an array of different little food stuffs each in its own special bowl or plate. They’re served together because they compliment one another and highlight the chef’s chosen theme for the meal, but we’re rapidly getting into the weeds so if you want to learn more about Japanese formal dining I’ll send you to this article.
Kaiseki only in the rice course really gives you a big serving of anything. You’ll be served a whole variety of different dishes in tiny sometimes one or two bite portions and even the soups are quite small. (At one of these dinners the soup featured mountain vegetables and honestly it was so cool. I loved it. I’m not crazy about vegetables, and I honestly have no idea which mountain vegetables I was eating as I did not recognize them at all, but it was so delicious.) Anyways, you get a taste of each of these little things. Enough to make you happy, but not so much that you cannot enjoy the rest of the meal.
I think the point of kaiseki is not just the chef artistically illustrating a theme through food, but allowing you to not set your palate to just one dish. You get to enjoy a huge variety when dining in this way. You are served tiny little dishes of different things, but you can enjoy each of them and your mouth is never bored.
But okay, Japanese don’t eat kaiseki every day.
What they do often eat daily or nearly daily is bento (弁当). This more or less means “lunch,” but not really. Technically, hirugohan (昼ご飯) or literally “noontime rice,” means lunch, but we’ll not get too far into the linguistic weeds here. (Alternatively, if you wanted to sound posh you could also say chuushoku (昼食), but again: weeds.)
Bento is kind of an old tradition and this really isn’t my area, but I do suspect that’s why the kanji for it are so weird. But you can sort of think of bento as a combination of a take out meal and a lunch box. So I have to explain this.
The above picture is a display of different bento boxes available for purchase at Kyoto train station. Good ekiben (駅弁) will have regional and seasonal themes and will be beautifully packaged, but you can also note yet again the variety of different foodstuffs in each box. Before I go on I want to note that these are pretty but they’re also pretty standard. This isn’t just aesthetically pleasing. You eat this. That will momentarily become relevant. (Some people also collect the boxes, which I don’t personally understand, but Japan has a habit of hitting me with cultural things that I just don’t get quite frequently.)
The above are lunch boxes prepared at home and taken to work by adults or older adolescents. In this case they’re prepped specifically for photography so this isn’t precisely what they’d look like if you took them to work in their little towel-bag and opened them up at lunchtime, but I imagine you’d still be pretty happy to be eating that. If you look closely there’s a few design elements to this that are a bit fiddly, but nothing you yes you couldn’t manage.
And then … then there is kid’s bento. This is one of the things that I just sort of have to stare at Japan aghast because who has time for this? Check out the detail in this lunch box. The bee, the little white flower on the left side and the little paper cup are the only things in here that are inedible. The rest is knife work and carefully stamped roast seaweed. Those little green things I’m pretty sure are broccoli. I’m told that there are actually a few parents who do basically this every single morning and I just don’t believe it. Honestly, if my mom had done this for me I would have loved it, but I also wouldn’t have eaten my lunch ever. It’s too pretty.
I’ve excluded New Year’s bento, but that’s also Japan at its most extra and I just can’t with it right now, so if you want to look up meals that cost some thousands of dollars, you do you.
But there’s several things all these bento and kaiseki have in common. They’re aesthetic, they’re varied, and they take time to eat. You’re not getting a big old steak or a piece of pizza. You’re getting a meal you eat with utensils and must eat slowly because it consists of a variety of different little things.
This is where we come to healthier foodstuffs. The bento boxes typically have a bit of rice a small portion of fish and egg and then lots and lots of vegetables. Sometimes they’ll have cheese, tomato, and potato, but not in vast quantities. Kaiseki similarly does not really mean to be healthy, but it is. There’s a LOT of fish and vegetables.
And as I mentioned earlier I’m not a huge fan of vegetables, but I tend to be just fine with them when cooked in the Japanese style. We westerners tend to suffer through our vegetables, but Japanese and really most of the rest of the world will lovingly season, cut, arrange, and incorporate vegetables in such a way that they’re really quite enjoyable.
But of course, bento is not the only thing Japanese eat, even for lunch. And it’s pretty typical for Japanese to run out and get some udon (饂飩) or something similar for lunch. I will say, the way Japanese eat udon is actually really bad for health because they’ll typically eat it when it’s still piping hot and then slurp the noodles as quickly as they can. By doing this they often get small burns on their oesophagus which can lead to oesophageal cancer. So, udon itself is perfectly healthy, but because Japanese like to eat it so quickly and at such a high temperature, it can become dangerous.
Aside from the manner of eating some foods, much of the Japanese diet is pretty healthy. Udon is thick noodles in broth and you can have with it vegetables and maybe a bit of meat or agemono (揚物) or fried food, but you’re basically filling up on water. And just about every meal Japanese eat involves fish. There’s just tons of fish. Japanese cooking does feature chicken, beef and even pork, but the star animal protein of Japanese cuisine is fish. Honestly, one of the best things about shopping in a Japanese market was how affordable and varied the fish choices were. It was just amazing.
This focus on vegetables and fish alongside a lot of soups and tea in Japanese cuisine and cooking is very healthy. For one thing, eating foods with a high water and fibre content will fill you up and prevent you from overeating. Such foods are also very good for your digestion and they will ensure you’re absorbing a lot of great vitamins that are sometimes lacking in an American diet.
But the fish part is especially great. It is not uncommon to see fish for breakfast in Japan. In fact, that’s a thing I really miss. In Japan I would often have for breakfast hot rice with a little roasted seaweed, an egg, and either tiny little fish or a small portion of something like salmon. It’s a really nice way to start one’s day because you’ve got basically everything you need there. It could do with a bit more vegetable matter, but for one that was my fault in not buying and cooking the vegetables and that sort of breakfast has a ton of protein and enough starch to get you and keep you going.
And there’s two really obvious benefits to eating fish particularly small fish. Firstly, fish is usually leaner than chicken, beef, lamb or basically any other sort of meat you’re likely to consume and secondly it is packed with omega-3 fatty acids. The reason that’s particularly good in small fish is you get to skip out on the higher mercury levels and still get those fatty acids.
Because Japanese meals typically fill you up on water, fibre, and lean protein with just a little bit of starch mixed in and because each meal is so varied you get full and it curbs your hunger.
The reason I’m so big on Japanese meals is because I did martial arts and archaeological digs and then climbed an actual mountain over there. All of these activities require athleticism. You don’t have to be an Olympic level athlete, but it is moderate to hard labour. I ate washoku (和食) while in Japan and basically lived wafu (和風) and while I did lose weight, I wasn’t trying to nor was it in any way onerous. On the digs I did keep a package of hard candies on me just in case I needed to bump up my blood sugar, but only rarely did I ever feel the need to pop one. And this was while I was hauling huge bags of soil to and fro, climbing in and out of deep features, and creating stratigraphy diagrams.
But this in turn leads me to Japanese lifestyle and manner of eating. Americans do a lot more sitting than Japanese. We sit in our cars, we sit at our desks, and we have a really bad habit of eating alone in front of screens either working or watching TV. While there has been a rising number of recluses or hikikomori (引きこもり) that’s kind of a separate issue. Japanese are more likely to walk, bike, or use public transportation to get from one place to another and it’s a bit more normal for middle-aged and older people to engage in exercise even if it’s something as simple as walking.
It may seem like nothing, but if you simply walk a mile every day when you had previously been just sitting, you will see positive changes to your body.
Additionally, I hinted earlier that Japanese tend to eat slowly. This is actually not entirely true, but let me explain. A lot of diet advice in America suggests using hashi (箸) or chopsticks to eat instead of a fork and knife or spoon. My mom as a schoolgirl was often looked after by a Japanese grandma (my great-grandmother and her traded childcare duties with one another to get more work done) so when I was a child my mother taught me some Japanese manners alongside Western ones including how to use hashi. For me, hashi won’t slow me down. But for most Westerners they will.
But even if you’re proficient with hashi they do sort of require you to be present more than if you’re eating with your hands or if you are using especially a fork or spoon. With a spoon you can just sort of shovel food into your mouth, but with hashi you have to pick up each little morsel. So you can eat quite quickly with hashi and hang out in Tokyo during lunch time and you will see Japanese eating just crazy quickly. It’s kind of disturbing actually. But generally and culturally speaking Japanese eat slower than Americans which allows them to enjoy the meal a lot more and realize they’re full before they overeat.
So, you’re thinking, this is great. How can I implement this in my own life? Well, it’s not going to be easy and you’ll have to learn a few new cooking techniques. I also want to say that while Japanese have a far lower rate of obesity they also have a higher rate of hypertension because they often overdo it on salt. So keep that in mind as you’re altering your diet. It’s not a perfect fix. Also, if you’re eating things like Japanese style curry or tonkatsu (豚カツ) while those are Japanese, they’re not typical and they’re not healthy.
Like any good cuisine, healthy Japanese fare takes time and care to prepare. It doesn’t need to be super difficult, but particularly for the healthier parts of the diet like those little side dishes, you will have to spend a lot of time in the kitchen prepping, and outside of Japan, some of the ingredients are a bit expensive.
But you can also take the concept of Japanese style eating and apply that to your life. Eat more fish, vegetables, and soups for one. Starches are fine, but they’re side dishes and should be treated as such. And instead of using a sugary sauce like ketchup or a creamy sauce like alfredo or hollandaise try to go salty and umami instead.
Lastly, don’t disregard the aesthetic or way of eating. If your meal is pretty and you are enjoying it you will savour it more. I don’t really like the idea of having to clean all those dishes, but it might be helpful to you to have those. Just imagine how cute little yellow slices of pickled daikon look on a red or black plate.
If you’re trying to lose weight but don’t want to miss out on good eating I really recommend Japanese style food. You won’t even have to give up fried foods, you’ll just be eating a greater variety of foods in smaller portions. I would recommend starting by changing your breakfast to a Japanese style breakfast and then expanding as you grow in confidence cooking homestyle foods. The youtube video I linked above will show you how to prepare a Japanese style breakfast, or you can use the recipes in this really great article by Kaki Okumura.
Anyways, all this talk of food has made me hungry so I’m going to follow my own advice and eat some nommy foods. Itadakimasu!