In July of this year, Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare announced that in 2018 Japan’s average life expectancy was 87.32 years for women and 81.25 years for Men.
Many researchers and scientists attribute Japan’s longevity to its diet. Many believe that the reason why Okinawa, the southernmost island of Japan, has a lot of centenarians is partly because of their diet. Compared to Western countries, sugary foods, and beverages have little room in the Japanese diet.
So what makes Japanese food so healthy? Let’s find out.
The Traditional Japanese Diet
In recent times, the Japanese have indulged in hamburgers, fried foods, pastries, ice-cream, sugary drinks, and everything you’d normally get out of Western countries. However, the Japanese have always dominantly stuck to the traditional Japanese diet that consists of rice, vegetables, seafood, soy products, and tea.
Experts have stated that the traditional Japanese diet greatly reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases and obesity. If you’ve ever been to Japan, you’ll definitely agree with this as people with obesity in Japan are pretty rare.
When it comes to traditional Japanese food, you will need to know more about Washoku (和食), which translates to food or cuisine of Japan. Washoku dictates not just what the Japanese eat but how they eat it.
A typical traditional meal consists of four main elements:
- Staple: rice
- Soup: seaweed, vegetables, tofu, or flakes of dried bonito (a type of small tuna) cooked with dashi (soup stock) and flavored with miso (fermented soybeans) or salt
- At least three side dishes: seafood, rarely meat like chicken or beef (considered the main dish); seasonal vegetables, mushrooms, or root crops
- Tsukemono (pickled vegetables and fruits)
Washoku is so important to Japanese culture that it is a UNESCO Cultural Heritage. The elements of washoku must work in harmony with each other. Together, these must satisfy the senses, from sight to smell to taste to tactile sensations. Since people eat first with their eyes, food is placed artfully in beautiful bowls. The bowls are arranged for maximum efficiency and aesthetics.
Portions are small. Smaller servings mean fewer chances of someone overeating and more chances of eating mindfully. Each Japanese meal is supposed to be an experience that the diner has to savor. The use of chopsticks necessitates small bites and slow eating. With the rice at the center of the meal, a diner can rotate and choose from soup to side dishes to pickles.
Healthy Eating Habits
The Japanese have a saying: hara hachi bu (eat only until you are 80% full). There is no such thing as pigging out in a traditional Japanese meal. There is a scientific explanation for this. Many experts believe that it takes 20 minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is already full. So, by eating slowly and stopping at 80% you will give your brain time to register that you are already full.
The Japanese also take in a lot of liquid during their meals. They sip soup between bites. Side dishes could be stews or salads made from juicy ingredients. Tea is the finale of any meal. The Japanese drink a wide variety of teas such as ryokucha (green tea), sencha (standard tea), and hojicha (roasted tea). But one of the most famous types of tea today is matcha. Matcha is made from powdered green tea leaves. Some say that one cup of matcha has antioxidants equivalent to three cups of regular green tea.
Many of the Japanese traditional cuisines contain a lot of sodium from salt or soy sauce. The amount of tea that the Japanese drink in one day helps to flush out the excessive sodium. Tea on its own does not contain any calories. It contains antioxidants that supposedly fight cancer and viruses, and reduces the risk of heart diseases.
Mindfulness when it comes to food starts from the preparation of ingredients. We all know that heat can break down the vitamins and minerals of any food. Some ingredients require less cooking time than others, but in general, less heat means more nutrients are maintained.
Japanese dishes follow five basic cooking methods:
This is not exactly “cooking” but more preparation. With sashimi, raw ingredients are cut thinly and delicately then served with a sauce. Since there are a lot of issues about foodborne illnesses when preparing and eating raw food, sashimi follows a very strict way of food preparation.
Some culinary experts and raw food proponents say that raw food is the best way of eating food. This is because ingredients will not go through any type of heat so the natural vitamins and minerals of the food will not be destroyed. When sashimi is mentioned, sliced fish and other seafood immediately come to mind. But, the Japanese prepare other ingredients in the sashimi way like gyuu no tataki (beef), basashi (horse meat), and toriwasa (chicken).
Steaming is used for savory dishes like chawanmushi (egg custard with dashi and vegetables and chicken) and sweet dishes like manju (steamed buns). This cooking method allows ingredients to cook in their own juices without the need for additional animal fats.
One famous Japanese cuisine that maximizes this cooking method is the nabe (hotpot). Tabletop cookery with a big pot is set up, dashi is created, various ingredients are thrown into the dashi, and everything is put to a boil.
Broiling cooks ingredients under direct high heat for a short period. Some famous examples made from this cooking method are yakitori (grilled skewered chicken parts) and teriyaki (meat or fish that are marinated then grilled).
Deep-fried foods like tonkatsu (breaded pork cutlets that are fried) or tempura (vegetables and seafood dipped in batter and fried) are famous all over the world. But, based on washoku, these are served in small portions and always accompanied by other dishes. For example, tonkatsu is usually paired with fresh shredded cabbage.
Tons of Variety
There will always be something salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) in each meal.
Umami is a Japanese concept that has been accepted in Western cultures as the fifth basic taste. It increases saliva secretion thus enhancing the aroma and deliciousness of food. It also boosts the savory goodness of proteins, which is why some dishes don’t need meat. The umami of ingredients like tofu and fish already provide the sensation of eating meat.
Seasoning dishes do not rely heavily on salt or sugar. The Japanese use fermented ingredients like soy sauce and miso, natural seasonings like seaweed, and fruits to flavor their savory and sweet dishes. Japan is also blessed with four seasons. So, there is a wide range of ingredients to choose from based on the current season. There are so many seasonal fruits, vegetables, and seafood that can be used to add variety to each dish.
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common ingredients used in Japanese dishes.
Daikon radish is more than just garnish for Japanese cuisine. It is used for stews and salads. It is shredded and served with sashimi as a palate cleanser when you eat different types of fish. Daikon has enzymes that help with digestion. It contains vitamins A, B6, C, and E. it is also said to have properties that fight cancer.
The Japanese technically do not have dessert. After a meal, if they have not reached 80% fullness, then they will eat seasonal fruits like loquats and strawberries during spring. Cherries, grapes, Japanese apricots, muskmelons, peaches, watermelons, or yuzu (a type of citrus fruit) during summer. Figs, Japanese chestnuts, Japanese pears, or kaki (Japanese persimmons) in autumn. Apples, mikan (mandarins), or strawberries during winter.
These fruits are also used in other dishes like salads, incorporated into sweets, or prepared as sauces. They are good sources of vitamins and minerals.
Konnyaku (konjac) is a type of yam. It is added to stews and takes on the flavor of other ingredients. It is known as the “broom for the stomach” since it is 10% indigestible fiber. It has a low calorie-content since it is 98% water. It is said the konnyaku can lower cholesterol and blood sugar. It also contains calcium, iron, phosphorus, and potassium.
Miso is a paste made from fermented soybeans and other ingredients. It is used to season, pickle, and marinate various dishes or ingredients. Since it is a fermented ingredient, miso also has probiotics that help with digestion. There are many varieties of miso but the three main ones are:
Shiro Miso (white miso), The color is actually light yellow instead of white. It is made from fermented soybeans and rice. It is considered the mildest miso so it can be used for a lot of dishes such as marinade, dressing, or soup flavoring.
Shinshu Miso (yellow miso), This is made from fermented soybeans and barley. It has a light brown color. It has a slightly stronger taste than shiro miso so if you want to flavor your salads, soups, and stews a bit stronger then use this.
Aka Miso (red miso), This is the saltiest and most pungent of the three main miso varieties. A little bit of it goes a long way to flavoring your dishes. It is made from fermented soybeans and barley or wheat. Its color can range from dark brown to red.
Natto is another ingredient made from fermented soybeans. A lot of people are turned off by its smell and slimy texture. But all enthusiasts swear by its health benefits. It aids in digestion because of probiotics, lowers chances of forming blood clots and thus reduces the risk of cardiovascular diseases, promotes healthy bones since it contains vitamin K, and has low calories so it helps with weight management.
Rice is the main source of carbohydrates for the Japanese. It is a good source of fiber. In other countries, the main source of carbohydrates are potatoes, pasta, and bread which are usually cooked with animal fat like butter or lard. The Japanese merely steam their rice. Rice is eaten as the staple of a meal or as a snack.
Onigiri (rice balls) are sold in convenience stores. These may be as simple as rice flavored with salt and wrapped in nori (seaweed sheet) or filled with extras like salmon pieces. On a side note, pounded mochiko (rice flour) is used to make sweets like dango (sweet dumplings) while mochi (glutinous rice flour) is used to make daifuku (mochi stuffed with fruits or sweet bean paste).
Sushi and sashimi are synonymous with Japanese cuisine. These dishes use the freshest seafood imaginable. Beyond the usual tuna or salmon, though, Japan is spoiled for choice when it comes to other seafood ingredients. Sushi and sashimi are synonymous with Japanese cuisine. These dishes use the freshest seafood imaginable. Beyond the usual tuna or salmon, though, Japan is spoiled for choice when it comes to other seafood ingredients.
- For spring, you can have clams, flounders, greater amberjacks, and silver striped round herrings.
- For summer, there are eels, flounders, horse mackerel, sardines, sea bass, sea urchin, and sweetfish.
- For autumn, you can find dishes with bonito, chum salmon, ikura (salmon roe) mackerel, octopus, or sanma (pacific saury).
- For winter, the most infamous seasonal fish is the fugu (puffer fish). But there is also buri/hamachi (Japanese amberjack), monkfishes, oysters, red sea breams, shrimp, and tuna.
Fatty seafood like salmon and tuna are known to contain omega-3 fatty acids that are supposed to reduce heart disease and boost brain activity. In addition to sushi and sashimi, various seafood are essential in other Japanese dishes like tempura (shrimps coated in batter and fried), katsuo no tataki (skipjack tuna wrapped in straw then seared), or aji furai (deep-fried breaded fish).
Soba is made from buckwheat flour, which is a healthier alternative to ramen noodles (made from wheat flour). It can be eaten warm in a broth or cold like a salad with a dipping sauce.
It is rich in rutin, which is an antioxidant that has a lot of benefits. It helps strengthen blood vessels for better blood circulation, prevents blood clots thus reducing the risk of heart attacks and strokes, lowers cholesterol, and reduces arthritis pain.
There are various types of seaweed that the Japanese use for their dishes. Here are the most common ones:
- Nori (dried laver or red algae) if you’ve eaten sushi, then you’ve eaten nori. It is the seaweed sheet used as a tie or wraps for sushi. Nori is also used to wrap onigiri (rice balls), garnish karaben (character bento or boxed lunches designed to look like characters like bears), top okonomiyaki and takoyaki. Flavored nori is sold as a snack.
- Kombu (dried bull kelp) these are mostly gathered from Hokkaido, the northernmost part of Japan. It has a greenish-brown leathery texture when dried. Kombu must be rehydrated or cooked until it is soft and chewy. It is an essential ingredient for dashi (stock), which is used for a lot of Japanese dishes. Besides dashi, it is used for onigiri filling, rice topping, salad ingredients, and stewed with vegetables. Kombu-cha is becoming famous these days in Western countries. A piece of kombu is steeped in hot water and drank as a tea.
- Wakame both fresh and dried varieties, is used mainly in miso soup. But these can be added to salad, pickled, or stir-fried with vegetables.
- Mekabu is the slimy sibling of wakame. The two are from the same sea plant. Mekabu is sold whole or shredded, and fresh or dried. It is very slimy but has a sweet-briny flavor that is good with dishes that have citrus, vinegar, or soy sauce in them like salads, soups
- Hijiki looks like black or dark green dried moss. It can be used for stews and soups.
- Kanten (agar agar) is a plant-based alternative to gelatin, which is animal-based. It is used to make sweets like pudding and anmitsu (traditional Japanese sweets) jelly.
Seaweed is rich in fiber, high in vitamins A, B2, C, D, and K. They also contain minerals like iodine, folate, iron, calcium, and magnesium. They are low in calories so you can eat a lot without getting fat.
Tofu is soy milk mixed with coagulants like calcium sulfate or nigari (made from seawater) to make either soft or firm tofu. It can be eaten grilled, boiled, mashed, or raw. It contains a lot of protein and amino acids. It has low calories and can substitute meat.
For many living in Western countries, the term “pickles” refers to baby cucumbers preserved in brine or vinegar solution. For the Japanese, tsukemono (pickled vegetables and fruits) can be any foodstuff that can be preserved using salt, brine, or rice bran. These can be daikon radishes, plums, gingers, turnips, cucumbers, onions, lotus roots, eggplants, etc. Tsukemono adds some visual appeal to meals. Plus, they are full of vitamins and minerals.
Vegetables are a good source of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Herbs provide additional flavor and, according to Buddhist teachings, heal the body. Root crops provide starch. Spices provide additional flavor as well. These are used for a variety of dishes, from salads to soups to stews. Some of the vegetables best eaten during the seasons are:
- For spring you have bamboo shoots, shiitake mushrooms, and potatoes.
- For summer you will find bell peppers, bitter melons, cucumbers, edamame (soybeans in pods), eggplants, Japanese gingers, lettuce, okra, shiso, and tomatoes.
- For autumn there are ginkgo nuts, mushrooms like matsutake, shimeji, and shiitake, rice (harvesting), pumpkins, sweet potatoes, shiitake mushrooms,
- For winter, you can eat cabbages, daikon radishes, renkon (lotus roots), and turnips.
The Alternative Diet
Compared to these, the Western diet consists of super-sized meals and portions, meat and animal products, and processed foods. This diet is high in calories, most of it empty calories. Empty calories are foods that contain little or no vitamins or minerals. These foods give energy but no nutrition to the body. Examples of these are potato chips, french fries, milkshakes, ice cream, sports drinks, and donuts.
After all, many of the ingredients in Japanese cuisines are expensive and hard to find in the West. Also, diet is just one part of the Japanese lifestyle that contributes to their longevity. There are also things like active and calm lifestyles to consider. What you can do is to adopt the philosophy behind washoku to your lifestyle.
- Eat whole grains rather than processed grains.
- Have a higher intake of liquids through your food.
- Incorporate more plants into your dishes.
- Lessen meat and dairy consumption.
- Eat more seafood.
- Savor each bite you take and eat slowly.
- Stop eating when you feel 80% full.
- Drink more tea.
These empty calories, plus the high amount of sodium, fats, and sugar in many Western cuisines, make obesity a prevalent disease among Western people, especially Americans. On the other hand, there are not many Japanese who become obese. You’re probably asking should I just turn completely Japanese? You can. Then again, you don’t have to.