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Japanese food and health

November 12, 2010

People make a wide variety of claims about different diets, and Japanese food is no different – just from other foreigners living in Tokyo I’ve heard everything from “Japanese is the healthiest diet on the planet” to “Japanese food will give you stomach cancer and mercury poisoning.” I also find that people talk about food in a very emotional and sometimes defensive way, and that every diet from the paleo diet to the raw food diet has its hardcore adherents who insist that their way of eating is the only way to have a healthy lifestyle.

Personally, as much as I like food I don’t really like to debate which diet is the best. During my eight years of vegetarianism I was very careful about who I revealed this fact to because I hated getting into discussions that always involved people trying to defend their choice to eat meat, attack the fact that I didn’t eat meat, or try to be so overly considerate of my diet that I wished I hadn’t mentioned it at all.

That being said, I truly believe that a traditional Japanese diet offers very good guidelines for healthy eating – if and only if the definition of “Japanese food” excludes the fried, processed, and MSG-laced selections that have come to be the norm in many Japanese homes and restaurants. I’m also not going to try to convince anybody to limit their diet only to Japanese food (even though it forms the base of my diet I still enjoy eating things like bread and cheese in moderation). Instead I’m just going to offer a few reasons why Japanese food is so comparatively healthy as overall principals that could theoretically be incorporated into any type of lifestyle.

A focus on fresh, seasonal vegetables
Most of the ingredients in a traditional Japanese meal are vegetables, ideally ones that have been freshly harvested at the time of the year when they are most delicious. And although most people no longer have the option of eating like my husband did when he was growing up, in which many of the vegetables they consumed had just been picked or dug up only hours before from their own or a relative’s field, I believe that even your standard vegetables from the supermarket can be pretty fantastic when prepared according to the Japanese principle of appreciating their natural flavor and not masking them with spices or overcooking them.

A traditional Japanese diet includes not only a large amount of vegetables, but a wide variety of them as well – many Japanese people say that you should eat 30 different food items per day which isn’t that hard if your meals include a bowl of miso soup with three or four different vegetables in it and one or two vegetable side dishes. Japanese people also enjoy eating many different sea vegetables, an entire subset of plants that many Westerners ignore but which are amazing sources of vitamins and minerals.

A reasonable way of thinking about grains
Grains are a tricky thing. You’ve got the group of people who believe that refined grains are nutritionally devoid poisons that will give you colon cancer, the group that believes that all grains should be soaked or fermented before eating to remove phytic acid, the group that believes flour is bad but brown rice is okay, the group that thinks that all grains should be entirely avoided for a variety of credible and not-so-credible reasons, and the group that is confused by all of this and just wants to eat Wonder Bread.

In contrast, traditional Japanese cuisine offers a fairly moderate and reasonable way of consuming grains, mostly based on different types of rice (white, brown, black, red, cooked with different types of grains, etc.) but occasionally supplanted by noodles made from other grains. Grains are present at every meal but should be served in smaller quantities than the other dishes they are accompanying (although this is flagrantly untrue when eating at restaurants). Many Japanese cookbooks also advise that you make sure not to serve too few carbohydrates with your vegetables and protein which can lead to feeling hungry later and thus overeating, which makes a certain amount of sense to me. I don’t really believe in randomly cutting out certain types of foods so I find that eating rice in moderate amounts is a good way to get enough enough carbohydrates without overdoing them.


Rice cooked with vegetables in a clay pot


High quality, nutritious proteins
I don’t need to talk about how nutritious fish is and all the wonderful things it does for your body – suffice it to say that high quality fish (preferably not farm raised) is a pretty good choice for your body’s protein needs. In the traditional Japanese diet, the bulk of protein comes from fish and plant sources while meat, dairy products, and eggs are only eaten occasionally. This has changed somewhat in contemporary times but the average Japanese person still eats a lot less meat than your average Westerner. And although many Americans are highly suspicious of tofu and other soy products, the Japanese have been consuming them for thousands of years and don’t seem to have suffered any ill effects so I feel comfortable eating soy as long as it hasn’t been processed to resemble something else entirely.

Japanese people do like eating meat (this is obvious if you’ve ever seen just how many yakiniku restaurants there are on a typical Tokyo street) but it’s pretty expensive and on a normal day they don’t eat a great deal of it. If you ever happen to be wandering around the meat aisle of a Japanese grocery store, just take a look at how small the packages of meat are that are usually used to serve four people. And while modern Japanese people love eggs (often runny and undercooked) and cheese (usually processed and flavorless), they still eat way more fish and soy than either of these two things.

Simmered freeze dried tofu and kabocha squash


Good fats in moderate quantities
Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. This may be the logic I use to justify my daily serving of peanut butter but it’s also entirely true. Japanese food contains a lot of good fats from fish and soy and fewer unhealthy fats such as those from dairy products and red meat. And in spite of the fact that a full Japanese meal in a fancy restaurant or traditional inn will almost always include something that has been deep fried, this is served in a small quantity and the bulk of side dishes will be steamed, raw, braised, or grilled. These types of preparation that don’t include a lot of added fat so it’s especially easy to control the type and amount of fat to fit your particular diet when cooking Japanese food for yourself.

Fermented foods
I’m a big believer in the power of fermented foods, which are full of all sorts of beneficial bacteria. Almost every Japanese meal contains at least one thing that has been fermented: miso (especially if it’s good miso that’s made in the old-fashioned way, preferably by hand by somebody’s granny), nuka-zuke (vegetable pickles fermented in a bed of rice bran), nattō (fermented soybeans), etc. Even soy sauce is fermented if you shell out the money to buy the good kind that is made via the traditional process and not just a cocktail of sodium and caramel color.

Smaller portion sizes
Japanese people who have been to the United States love to shock and horrify their friends with tales of how big the portions are in American restaurants. Sometimes this really offends my American pride and I start arguing back, pointing out all the ramen shops in Tokyo where you can order ōmori (extra-large) or tokumori (super extra-large) bowls of noodles. But deep down I admit that they’re right, and that most American food is served in quantities that are significantly larger than most Japanese food. As a rule Japanese people are satisfied with a wide variety of dishes served in small amounts. I personally prefer this way of eating myself because it means I can enjoy a wide range of flavors without stuffing myself.

A variety of small dishes at Takewaka restaurant in Tsukiji

In conclusion, I think that all diets can include most things in moderation but I feel the healthiest and have the most energy when I eat as outlined above. That’s why I think that Japanese food offers a good template for healthy eating incorporating a wide variety of flavors and ingredients without needlessly eliminating whole parts of the food pyramid.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 1:12 pm

    I absolutely agree with many of the points you bring up in this post, though I have to respectfully take issue with your decision to lump dairy fats into the ‘bad fats’ category as I think that dairy fats get a bad rep thanks to the homogenization and processing they are subject to in the modern world, as well as the trend of over-consumption rampant in the West.

    But that’s a discussion for another day! 😀

    The thing I find most interesting about food culture in Japan is the ridiculous disconnect between traditional Japanese eating habits, and those that have become popular in restaurants in modern times. It’s very hard to take the assertion that Japanese food is healthy seriously looking at the style of cooking that is popular on TV, and at many of the restaurants frequented by the locals. But I absolutely agree with you that when you strip it back to traditional home-cooking it really does make a lot of sense. I have always especially love the 30 items in a day guideline and use it in my daily life.

    Though I do not cook according the the most traditional Japanese methods most of the time, I do think I stick to many of them in principle. Particularly the emphasis on fresh, seasonal vegetables, moderate use of grains, and a focus on variety. I generally get by with much less emphasis on rice as my main grain, as I totally riced myself out after my first 2 years here, and instead try to vary my diet so that I don’t eat the same grain twice in a row. Lately, though, I have been getting random rice cravings, so I think it might be time to reincorporate it back into my diet more often!

    • November 17, 2010 8:54 pm

      It’s very true that any Japanese food TV show could entirely convince you that Japan is the unhealthiest nation on the planet. I wish I had some theory for how the dietary habits of the average Japanese person have become so very disconnected from the traditional way of eating that served them so well, but I really don’t know the reason. Something I was translating the other day said that a shift away from rice was encouraged by flour subsidies from the U.S. after WWII, but who really knows…

      The 30 foods a day guideline is a great one! I think it’s hard to go wrong even just following that one since it ensures so much variety. And you do certainly eat an interesting variety of grains that I almost never cook, although I should.

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