Health Lessons from International Cuisines: Japan | Chris Kresser
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Health Lessons from International Cuisines: Japan

by Chris Kresser

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In the first article of this series I talked about the French diet, and the Japanese diet is almost the polar opposite. Most of the foods that are staples in France – cheese, red meat, bread, butter – are consumed rarely in Japan, if at all. While France is known for their high-fat diet, Japan has one of the lowest-fat diets in the world, with meals built primarily on soy, fish, vegetables, and white rice. (1)

The Japanese have maintained one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and have been featured on many lists of the world’s healthiest countries. Public health experts hold the Japanese diet in high esteem, second only to the venerable Mediterranean diet. So what can we learn from the Japanese?

How can a high-carb, low-fat, soy-filled diet result in one of the world’s healthiest countries?Tweet This

The Asian Paradox

One of the most defining characteristics of Japanese cuisine is the ubiquitous presence of white rice. In Japan, white rice is almost always served for two meals per day, and will commonly be featured in all three. (2) When ‘Paleo’ was still synonymous with ‘low carb,’ many wondered about the Asian Paradox – how can Asians eat so many refined carbohydrates and stay lean?

But now that ‘safe starches’ have become more widely accepted, it doesn’t seem like so much of a paradox. You know my take on the matter: not everyone does well on starch, but many people do, and adding more starch can often give people more energy and help them achieve their weight loss or other health goals. Starch has been part of the human diet for a couple million years, and white rice is one of the most benign forms of starch available. Plus, Japan’s high consumption of white rice means they eat significantly less wheat than most modern countries, which is probably a good thing.

What about all that soy?

You know I’m not really a fan of most modern soy foods, but one soy food that probably does deserve its badge of honor is natto. It’s a slimy soy ferment that I find somewhat disgusting, but it’s the single best source of vitamin K2 out there, and the fermentation process does appear to reduce the harmful compounds in soybeans. (3)

Traditionally, natto was used as folk medicine for heart disease and other ailments, and modern science is on its way to proving that traditional wisdom correct. (4) It turns out there’s a unique fibrinolytic enzyme in natto that scientists call nattokinase, which is being studied for use in treating atherosclerosis, stroke, hypertention, and other related diseases. (5) Studies have demonstrated its ability to directly break down the fibrin in blood clots, as well as its ability to activate the body’s natural fibrinolytic enzyme – plasminogen. These actions result in decreased plaque and lesion formation, and decreased formation of blood clots that could later cause a heart attack or stroke.

One neat thing about studying traditional diet patterns is noticing how the interactions between specific foods can help make the diet work as a whole. One concern about soy is that it’s a goitrogen, and can interfere with iodine uptake and use by the thyroid. (6) But while Japan is undoubtedly one of the top soy consumers (and not all of the soy they eat is fermented), they also have the highest iodine intake in the world thanks to their seaweed-rich diet. (7) One study shows that the Japanese have a unique ability to digest seaweed because of their gut bacteria, so they can eat more of it without experiencing digestive distress. (8) The high concentration of iodine in the Japanese diet likely goes a long way in protecting them from these negative effects of soy, and proves how important context is when evaluating a food.

The lesser known Japanese staple

The media has latched onto fish, green tea, and soy as the trifecta behind Japan’s slim, long-lived population, but one thing they rarely mention is soup. We know how beneficial bone broth is, and studies have found that soup consumption is inversely correlated with BMI and circulating leptin levels. (9) But many people don’t realize that besides rice, soup is often considered to be the most important food in Japan. (10) Broth for the soup is usually made with sardines or other fish simmered with seaweed, resulting in a mineral-rich stock to which other ingredients (such as miso) can be added.

In the traditional Japanese diet, some form of soup is served with every meal. And although Japan is slowly adopting a more Western diet, a study conducted a few years ago found that the Japanese still eat soup an average of 7.6 times per week. (11) This is certainly more than most people manage, and it’s more than three times the average weekly soup consumption of France.

Soup is a staple in other Asian countries as well. Vietnam is known for serving soup with every meal, and traditional Vietnamese pho is famous for its gelatinous beefy broth. (12) In Korea, soup is recognized as a healing food and was always given to women after they gave birth, which is why this recipe is called ‘Birthday Soup.’

What can we learn from the Japanese?

In addition to reaffirming the merits of bone broth, I think the Japanese diet shows us how important context can be. For a metabolically damaged American, eating white rice at every meal might cause problems, but for the Japanese, it provides a safe source of carbohydrates that complements their traditionally nutrient-dense diet. And although they do eat soy, it’s not as worrisome in the context of their extremely iodine-rich diet and consumed alongside other traditional foods. And although I don’t think we all need to run out and buy a package of natto, the studies on its benefits reaffirm the value of traditional wisdom in making food choices.


Join the conversation

    • How come? I know some fish have thiaminase (destroys b1), which is not good to eat much of, but not all fish has it (salmon doesn’t and it’s popular for sushi), but otherwise it’s a fairly healthy food.

    • It depends on the meat, some fish do have a substance called thiaminase, which can destroy vitamin B1. This is a little worrying for people who eat these all the time, it doesn’t seem most people are aware of thiaminase. It is well known in certain pet communities where they are fed raw fish. Would be great to see an article on this.

  1. Have lived in Japan 20 years and am raising kids here in a smallish town. Thanks for writing about this, Chris. I also agree with the comments from those who’ve visited or lived here.

    There is no one Japanese diet for all and economics and family dynamics have an affect on how nutrition.

    And though Japanese may be living longer, it doesn’t mean they’re healthy. I’ve seen firsthand, what friends go through trying to care for elderly parents in an overloaded system with not enough beds in nursing facilities to care for them. The responsibility is put back on the families to figure out how to provide in-home nursing care with minimal help.

    I’m not in an affluent area, and see children and adults eating loads of cheap processed food. Bakeries are everywhere (speaking to the popularity of bread) as are convenience stores with sandwiches and even onigiri full of frightening additives. I read every label and it is all full of additives and preservatives, made with margarine and mysterious “vegetable oil”. I cook at home as much as possible and am ever striving to get my younger son to eat well as he can always have low quality snacks and carbonated “juice” at his friends’ homes,

  2. The ‘Safe Starches’ concept interests me. It really sheds light into the ‘asian paradox’ It really makes sense. Ill have to do some more looking into safe starches though.

    • Japanese cuisine for me is not just food, but rather a philosophy, a way of life. A beautiful table setting, food in small plates, small portions and a different taste to the same table, at the same time simple and complex taste, the taste of soy sauce, the complexity and simultaneously simplicity, variety and moderation at a time. The French say: “Take care of the girl figure and face, we will draw” 🙂 and so Japanese food is useful for the figure and health, it helps me to always be in good shape. And if I suddenly gained weight after some prolonged holidays, I follow stricter diet for 2 weeks.
      But if you constantly eat like the Japanese, I mean the menu and style of eating, you definitely will not have over weight problems. About menu you can read in the article above written by Chris. And regarding eating manners. Portions of food in Japan almost a third less than in the west. Japanese adhere to the following rule: “Eat until you’re fed up to 80%.” Japanese chew food very carefully, slowly, savoring every bite, so saturation occurs faster and they almost never experience hunger. Japanese chopsticks help the slow absorption of food, you cannot capture a lot, and fill your mouth.

  3. White rice may not be really bad for you, but how can it be any good as a staple when you remove all the nutrient-rich parts of the grain?

    • By including other foods that contain those nutrients.
      Rice bran isn’t the only source of fibre, vitamin B1 et cetera.
      White rice is rich in one nutrient – carbohydrate – and resistant starch which acts a lot like fibre in our gut. If consumed in a meal with vegetables (potentially pickled vegetables), fat and a vinegar-based sauce, they aren’t a high-GI food at all.

  4. 日本人も見ているようなので日本語でも書いておく。
    食の西洋化が進んでいるとはいえ、欧米、特に米国と比べると日本人の砂糖、塩、食用油の摂取量ははるかに少ない。 日本のチーズケーキと米国のチーズケーキを
    温かい飲み物が豊富で米国人よりたくさん飲んでいる。 運動不足も肥満の原因だが、米国に住んでみてマラソンしている人は日本より多く見かける。

  5. Hi Chris,
    Eating less junk foods and soda drinks are crucially important for many of the Americans, I imagine.
    When I went to NYC, I was surprised “one meal portion for the local” is at least “four meals for the Japanese”.
    So, I guess “eating less steadily in everyday life” is a good initiation toward the healthy life.

  6. American people like cold drink
    It cold drink cool the body temperatureow. And therefore It becomes easier with fat For the maintenance of body temperature.
    Japanese people Although a cold drink in the summer but drink a warm drink in winter. American people drink colid drink in winter.

  7. Why? too sweet American Cheese cake
    Why? too Salty American Potato chips
    Why? too Salty American Sausage
    Why? too oil American Barbecue and hamburger
    Dont delicious at all American food and Too dont health

  8. This entire thread is based on the Japan of years ago, before the introduction of the “American” diet. While it is true that it has been a rather slow change, that is no longer the case. Travel Japan today and you will find the “American” diet available just about anywhere, except out in the country, and that will eventually change as well, as demand requires it. Thirty years ago Japan was still pretty much its own world, nutritionally speaking, NOT TODAY. You can find ANY cuisine you want in any major city. And the Japanese will pay the price, probably sooner than they would like…. the “average” Japanese diet WAS healthy, past tense.

  9. Straight from the horse’s mouth

    Yuri talks about learning about food from elementary school, and whilst it’s true, what they learn is of little use and usually wrong.

    He also mentions yearly health checks but again I find that these are used to give poor information based on outdated or simply wrong ideas.

    Taka, whilst I can’t deny that many foreigners here do drink, coke, juice, energy drinks etc it’s not true to say that Japanese people drink Japanese tea. There are only a couple of millions foreigners in Japan yet every single convenience store has racks of refrigerators chock full of sugary drinks which are all marketed at and bought by Japanese people. Think Calpis or how about Shiso flavoured Pepsi (foreigners might take pics of it to post on fb but we certainly don’t drink it!) to name just a few.

    And whilst a few calorie obsessed Japanese people might drink small drinks at Starbucks many choose larger sizes and often order dessert too. Cafe culture is huge in Japan and I know many people who sit all day in such places and whilst a few might nurse the same drink for hours many don’t stop at one.

    Plus many restaurants serve huge portions think of stores like Coco Ichi, Yoshinoya, Sukiya, Matsuya etc where most meals consist of a huge amount of rice with a small amount of meat or veg on top. Then there are other places like Yayoiken etc where you can eat as much rice as you want and people do!

  10. Hi,

    The view point from a Japanese man , most foreigners drink coke or juice whenever they want to drink something.
    We usually drink Japanese tea (not green tea) instead of them.
    Additionally, all restaurant serves foods having little quantity.
    We take a short or tall Caffe latte at Starbucks. People in China or other Asian countries are same as others, they order grande one.

    Sushi isn’t healthy food to consider calories, so the secret isn’t Japanese foods.

  11. Advice
    Americans people need change to Cooking Methods
    Be less than one quarter the use sugar, salt, oil
    after meals drink green tea of Japan, oolong tea and Eucommia tea

    Do not drink chinese tea becouse there are many pesticide residues.
    Do not put absolute sugar in tea
    Do not drink carbonated beverages also
    after meals To walk about three kilometers

  12. How do you do
    I am Japanese. I live in USA now
    Japanese people know. why many obesity people in the American
    Americans people use too much sugar, salt and oil in cooking
    Japanese ingest will only use about one-quarter of Americans
    Sense of taste is wrong Americans.
    BMI over 30 chart
    USA 30.6%
    Japan 3.2%

    Chinese also because it uses a large amount of salt, sugar, and oil
    Obesity rate is over 10%

  13. 日本語で失礼します。









  14. Hi Chris,

    Thank you so much for your great and informative article. One factor why the Japanese diet is healthy is because they are one of the most homogenous populations in the world. Certain traits that lend themselves to longevity can be inherited.

  15. Just reading through the article and comments and have to say I’ve been living in Japan for more than five years now and much of what is written here, particularly the comments is way off mark.

    On a daily basis I talk to Japanese people about what they eat, how they cook it, what they think is healthy/unhealthy. I talk to them about their health issues. I see what they buy at the supermarket.

    I could quite literally write a very thick volume on the subject. Needless to say talking about a ‘Japanese diet’ is a nonstarter as diets vary massively here. I know many who eat almost no meat whatsoever, and many who remove all fat from their food. I know many who don’t eat fish. Talk of small portions or portion control again is nonsense. Whilst many girls will starve themselves eating meager amounts of food, it’s not uncommon for people to eat meals containing 4-500 grams of rice or more.

    Most people I know eat a lot of bread and I have never heard a single Japanese person talk about grains as being unhealthy. Most people also seem to believe that you need to eat some sugar everyday. Whilst people drink a lot of green tea they also consume massive amounts of sugary drinks along with sweets and cakes.

    On a daily basis people buy bento boxes for lunch that contain a lot of poor quality meats breadcrumbed and deep fried in vegetable oil.

    Everyday I witness or talk about the myriad health problems that seem to afflict people here. Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease and strokes, osteoporosis, scoliosis, periodontal disease, so many children with severe allergies so on and so forth.

    Needless to say I think that in the very near future the there will be a quite a significant drop in the life expectancies of Japanese people.

  16. Wenchypoo,

    Because good health starts and ends in the gut…. doesn’t matter how much exercise one gets if the digestive system is not healthy… this is THE basis for good health. Exercise is great, if you’re in decent health… otherwise it is just another stressor…

    • I agree that gut health is usually the place to start for someone needing to adopt an alternative health plan. I can’t see though that exercise is, on balance, a negative influence for someone with poor gut health, as you imply. Do you have a study to show this?
      I suggest you reply with any additional comments by hitting the “reply” button under the statement you are replying to — in the case of talking about Wenchypoo’s comment, hit “reply” beneath her comment. This will help the other readers of this forum to navigate and understand.
      Best of health to you, Mr. Paleo, and please comment more about gut health. I’m sure it may be critical to understanding the benefits of the Asian diet, but I have no data to support that, except that Asians seem to eat far less gluten than the rest of the world, and gluten is coming to be recognized as a great aggravator of leaky gut syndrome which leads to many chronic maladies.

      • Glenn,

        Actually, I did hit enter as a reply, have no idea what happened…

        First, let me clarify my response… this site is about health and nutrition, not exercise. I am also a certified personal trainer with extensive education in fitness and sports-medicine. I would never argue that “exercise” is not important to overall health… what I was trying to say is that without a body healthy from the inside out, all the exercise in the world won’t make you “healthier”. As my personal experience will attest to, those that came into the gym with “health” problems weren’t magically made better through exercise, I had to work with their dietary habits and sometimes medical conditions as well… I now work with a retired physician to treat everything from bipolar disorder to cancer with dietary changes at the forefront of our work… p.s., I am sixty years old, rarely if ever sick, have a 29″ waist, BMI of 19, and only occasionally have time to work out any more… most of which I attribute to my switch to a Paleo/Primal lifestyle.

        • I live in an area that has many Chinese people. Their idea of healthy “exercise” is based on a different paradimn, The manipulation of “Chi”..They get up early and perform Tai Chi or Chi Gong type of movements to expieate bad or stale Chi and take in good Chi from the fresh morning air and sunlight. Accupuncture also is based on this way of thinking. It is an error to focus on what is familar to us, walking and bike riding as their primary help.

          When we talk about the health of Asian peoples, we are not in Kansas anymore Toto.

  17. As I said in the French article–WHY ARE WE ONLY LOOKING AT THINGS FROM A FOOD ANGLE? Both Asians and French WALK MORE than we do because cars are prohibitively expensive–in Japan’s case, PARKING is extremely prohibitive!!

    We can look like them too if we ditched our cars and walked/rode the bus/train more.

    I’m willing to bet that any other country you come up with will have a similar movement component to go along with whatever food component exists.

    • I totally agree. Glad you brought this up. In spite of what Mr. Paleo says following this, it’s very hard to vote against moderate exercise. In fact, as long as we are talking exercise, it seems gyms and athletic fields and jogging circuits are used far less in Asia than in the US. They tend to exercise moderately. So in addition to exercise, the type of exercise may be a strong factor in longevity. I have been participating in forums for a while, and for over a year, I have questioned all the fitness advocates (mostly lifters, runners, and interval trainers) about providing one study showing longevity can be connected with strenuous exercise, and apparently, no study has been done. Only studies showing positive relationships between “markers” of heart health and strenuous exercise exist. So I would say, without proof of long-life-benefits of strenuous workouts, that moderate exercise may be the key, because that is what accompanies longevity in the longevity studies.

  18. Thanks Chris for this wonderful article. I eat white rice twice a day usually with fish and vegetables. I am a slim female. Is rice better than wheat for weight loss? What other foods besides natto have fibrinolytic enzyme?

  19. I’m enjoying the “Health Lessons from International Cuisines” series so far, hope to see more of these.

    “Soup” as a healing food or even a food group unto itself is a bit misleading though–it depends what you put in the soup. The Korean soup women eat after pregnancy is a seaweed soup. They also have 24 hr restaurants that serve a popular bone-broth soup (which, incidentally, is also considered a hangover food). Funnily enough, Koreans eat a kind of chicken soup when they are sick too.

    Regarding the “Asian exception”–one other thing that strikes anyone who’s spent any significant amount of time living in Asia is that the foods the different countries eat are actually very different from one another. The Korean diet, in particular, is typically said to lead to its own set of health problems–such as relatively higher incidence of stomach cancer, presumably due to high consumption of red pepper and soju (a kind of alcohol).

  20. I haven’t read the comments, so this may have been covered: my Japanese friend tells me that they don’t eat soy as the focus of a meal, like Americans eat a big slab of meat. It’s more of a condiment. Also, it’s usually fermented.

  21. I would like to add that people in Japan have a rate of diabetes which, though lower than the American rate, is still surprisingly high (something like ~5-6% vs ~8% in the US, by diagnoses). I know some Japanese who have T2DM. This surprises me because of the relatively much lower obesity rates. Perhaps it’s because the population is older, but I think it could be related to an emphasis on rice. As time goes on, lifestyles in Japan are becoming more sedentary as well, though as a baseline I’d say they walk and ride bicycles quite a bit more than Americans, on average.

    On a recent trip to rural southern Japan, I noticed a great many rice paddies had been turned into wheat fields. I’ll just let that speak for itself.

    • This higher current rate of diabetes in Japan is likely to the Westernization of the diet, not from the traditional diet with white rice. More McDonalds, more dairy, processed foods, sodas etc..

      Diabetes in rural China and non-Westernized parts of Japan do not have these higher rates of diabetes. In fact, in rural China where the traditional diet based on rice, diabetes is nearly non-existent. But Chinese and Japanese citizens who move to American end up w/ same rates of diabetes as other Americans. It’s definitely the food, but not the rice!

  22. For several years in the past, I was following a modified Japanese diet, it was macrobiotics, first in the Michio Kushi style, then in the Herman Aihara style. At first I lost weight and felt great, but after a couple of years, I regained the weight and then some, i suffered from digestive issues, farted like a truck driver. Looking back at this now, I was on my way to developing metabolic syndrome.

    I still retain elements of the diet, such as seasonal food choices, a high fish and seafood, sea vegetables intake, a love of Japanese style green tea.
    The most important thing I took away from macrobiotics, was the appreciation for the sacredness of food, my knife and cutting board, were an altar, in the chapel of my kitchen.

    • Iron Chef Bobby Flay vs Murimoto. When Flay won he got on the counter and stood on his cutting board. This was unforgivable in Morimoto’s eye’s. He explained that to the Japanese such things are considered sacred to a Chef. He was visibly upset..

  23. Another factor that could have a part to play is Japenses diet is supposed to be very low in advanced glycation end-products (AGES) due to there low heat cooking methods.

  24. I lived in Japan for 3 1/2 years recently, working at a company in Kyoto where I was the only white person amidst 200 Japanese. We had a “cafeteria” in the office where lunch was prepared for all the staff daily (we had several full-time cooks) which was generally standard Japanese food.
    Rice and some sort of soup (generally miso but not always) were a standard at every meal. We ate a lot of fish, and occasionally red meat (usually in the form of ground mince as hamburger patties, probably more cost efficient) as well as other seafood. There were a lot of fresh salad mixes as well, and a fair bit of fermented sides. Everything was set out on a buffet and people would fill little dishes — a plate with fish, a plate with one salad, a plate with another salad, along with the bowl of rice and the bowl of soup. Everyone ate rice with their meal, and the male staff often went back for seconds. Occasionally we’d have udon or katsudon or something, which was then just a single big bowl with the rice/noodles, meat, veg, etc in the one bowl. All the ingredients were bought fresh and prepared the same day, and everything was seasonal — we ate very differently in summer than we did in winter.

    Also, I primarily socialised with Japanese people, and restaurants are much the same — fresh food, fish and veggies, sometimes red meat. Going out for yakiniku was a special occasion, but much enjoyed, where we ordered big slabs of sliced red meat and cooked them at our table, with fresh salads as a side.

    Most of the people I socialised with knew a lot more about traditional Japanese cooking and were quite accustomed to being able to buy a random set of vegetables and fish/meat from the grocery store and being able to cook with it. At the supermarkets, the fresh veggie section was a lot bigger, as was the fish section, although the meat section was more limited (and expensive). People seemed to shop more regularly (every few days) and relied on always having access to fresh foods, and were inclined to cook seasonally.

    That said, I have noticed that there is a lot of influence now of chocolates, pastry shops/bakeries and fast food restaurants, and because these are an “imported” thing, they are seen as very hip and cool and stylish, so more and more young people are going to cake shops regularly, or eating pastries regularly. Plus convenience stores sell a LOT of bakery-type products which are often eaten by people now as they rush to work, instead of breakfast, and they also sell microwave dinners, which can even be heated for you in-store, but which are woefully nutritionally deficient. More and more people are just living on this “convenience food” because when you’re so overworked it’s easier than cooking for yourself.
    And you can almost see the generational difference in weight as well — 50yo Japanese are by and whole thinner than 30yo Japanese, who are by and whole thinner than the teens and young children that I saw regularly in the suburbia area I lived. And the 20yo girls I worked with knew less about cooking and nutrition than the 40 and 50yo women I worked with, and also ate more “Western” snacks (made with weight), were generally chubbier, and worried more about how hard it was to lose weight. There were several noticeably overweight girls in the 20-30 age range at my work, but none in the 40-60 age range. The younger girls were also much frailer than the older women, too — anemia was a VERY common problem, as was lack of menstruation, getting cold too easily, and passing out from overheating during summer, and a variety of other things that reinforced the idea that women are “weak”.

    I worry that the more Westernized Japan becomes, the less their diet will protect them from ill health. That said, for now they are still overall much thinner. When I returned to Australia after my 3 1/2 years in Japan, I spent several weeks in confused shock about how fat everyone is here (comparatively). :/

    • Ahem. The Western snacks are “made with WHEAT”, not made with weight. That was a Freudian slip if ever I saw one. 😉

  25. Spent 3 weeks travelling through Japan on vacation earlier this month. People are indeed much thinner than here in Australia. The much smaller portion sizes in restaurants were very striking, and were often only half to two thirds of equivalent dishes back home. Rice was eaten at most meals but generally came in small bowls that could be refilled rather than buckets. The rice was also generally lukewarm to cool (which is interesting from the perspective of resistant starch). Beef was very delicious, highly marbled, very expensive, and served in small amounts. Chicken and fish were more affordable but still not served in large quantities. Overall, my meals were much lower in fat and protein than what I was used to. The other thing I noticed was that the environment was potentially “obesegenic” (i.e. cakes, crepes, other deserts, soft drinks were absolutely everywhere).

  26. My father-in-law was a PhD food safety/food additives chemist at the FDA for many years and spent a year working in Japan through a National Science Foundation fellowship. I went to visit them for a month in Tokyo. Some observations:

    (1) They don’t allow a lot of preservatives and food additives in their food like we do, according to him. For instance, their bread doesn’t last as long as ours because of this, but they go to the grocery store several times per week and get fresh food when they need it. (Their kitchens and refrigerators are smaller than ours.) I was amazed that the shelves of bread were empty at the end of each day at the grocery store and this was in the summer – not due to an impending snowstorm!

    (2) They don’t eat much dessert and the dessert they do eat isn’t too sweet.

    (3) They are very active and exercise and walk or ride bikes a lot more than the average Americans. We were in Tokyo and most people don’t use cars, but use public transporation and/or walk/ride bikes.

    (4) Everything, including the public restrooms, is very clean. If they spill water on a public restroom counter, they wipe it dry. If someone has a cold, they wear a mask. This could positively impact health.

    (5) People are very polite, considerate and courteous. This also could positively impact health.

    As an aside, my father-in-law was very particular about what he ate and how much he ate. He avoided processed foods and meats, peanuts in shells (toxic molds), margarine, sugar and desserts, grilled & blackened foods and eating out and preferred natural/whole foods like fruits, vegetables, gently cooked food, meats, fish and rice. And this was 25 years ago! I often joked that from working at the FDA, he knew too much!!!

  27. “cheese, red meat, bread, butter – are consumed rarely in Japan, if at all.”

    Sorry, but this statement is nonsense from my own experience over 20 years. Many people I know eat bread every day in Japan, and that is certainly not my influence – they were doing it long before I met them. Also red meat is eaten relatively often I would say – 2 or 3 times a week is completely normal. I’ve never feel like eating it more often than that. Sure, butter and cheese are consumed less than in France, but they’re far from absent. Japan has some interesting high-fat dairy products that I love. For example, a bit old-fashioned now, but I still enjoy it: raisin butter (butter with some raisins and rum, formed into a roll, sliced and eaten as a snack. Can be bought in the supermarket.

    Also, I agree with the person stating that the Japanese know what food to reduce when they want to lose weight: rice. I’ve seen woman do that again and again, and it always works. They usually regain the weight when they resume their large rice servings.

    Btw, not many sardines find their way into what passes for stock nowadays.

  28. There is a paper attributing japanese health to high intakes of taurine from seafood, and magnesium.
    the taurine neutralises any excess of cholesterol in the diet. Dietary cholesterol as a cause of disease isn’t popular in Paleo circles, but in the context of the Western diet – processed meats and dairy low in taurine choline, and vitamins but retaining cholesterol, probably oxidised, and consumed with peroxidised heated seed oils – it is pretty likely to be a player.

  29. All of the observations in the article are spot on. I lived in Japan for nearly a year (1998-1999) in college while fulfilling my minors in Japanese and Asian Studies. When I got there I was maybe 35lbs overweight at 215 pounds (not my largest by any means). When I left I was MAYBE 175 and 15% body fat. While I did study several martial arts pretty heavily while I was there, I didn’t go to the ‘gym’ once. I merely ate what others ate, walked or rode my bicycle everywhere like everyone else, went to the dojo with my friends and was more mindful (which was a much more prevalent trait in the people I hung out with).

    I lived in the Kansai in a medium sized rice farming community on Lake Biwa (largest inland lake in Japan) so rice was in nearly every meal (noodles were available as well). When it came to home cooked meals, rice was served in small ratios (compared to a western diet) and complemented by other, small servings of multiple dishes.

    This article doesn’t, however, discuss the preponderance of prepacked, sodium laden food or the uptick in pancreatic cancer.

  30. The japanese have the highest consumption of iodine (about 12 mg). Most of the western world is deficient in iodine, the RDA is way to low. Iodine shortage means suboptimal thyroid function, contributes to low metabolism, leads to carbohydrate intolerance.

    Is there a connection between a low iodine intake and the obesity and hypothyroid epidemics? Definitely, yes.

    • Great point Harmen! Iodine is turning out to be critical to health. Not just because of it’s use by the thyroid. From my readings, I’ve found that the healthy human body contains about 1500 mg. of iodine. Only 50 mg. resides in the thyroid. 20% of one’s iodine is in the skin (300 mg.) and 32% is in the muscle (480 mg.). A shortage of iodine in the thyroid is indicative of a shortage in the whole body, and is bound to hamper the immune system.

  31. I also want to comment on the Japanese diet from my own observations (anecdotes, I know). Rice is indeed mostly served to end the meal, a small bowl, and often not finished because you’re full from the meal proper. Also, pork is an important part of the Japanese diet in my experience, especially pork belly either in soup or grilled. My Japanese friends also often had chicken liver and chicken hearts. And when I asked them how they would lose weight, they all said that to lose weight you just eat a bit less rice. To sum up, I see the Japanese diet as medium-carb, filled with fatty fish (basically at every meal, grilled for breakfast), fatty meats, organ meats, sea vegetables, some fermented vegetables, and bone broth. Half the country hates natto, but they eat modest amounts of traditionally prepared soy products. And I wonder if not the traditional soy sauce preparation reduces some of the harm from the wheat? Overall, it’s a great diet: delicious and healthy!

  32. You overestimate the amount of rice the Japanese eat. I spent two weeks in Japan and made a study what Japanese people ate in restaurants. An ice cream scoop of rice was served at the end of every meal to cleanse the palate-no more than 3 ounces.

    To illustrate my point, I saw two Japanese girls eating bowls of rice at a restaurant. One girl had an traditional ice cream scoop of rice in her bowl. She was thin as are most Japanese. The other girl had her rice bowl filled to capacity just as an American would. She was fat and was one of the few fat people I saw in Japan.

    I had no trouble eating low-carb paleo in Japan and I ate all the rice I was given.

  33. It’s also important to note that asian’s salivary glands and pancreases are much larger than caucasion’s so they are able to digest carbohydrates much better.
    Liz J.

    • Where did you hear this? I am Asian and have type 2 diabetes. So does a whole bunch of Asians over 50 whom I know. As an ethnic group Asians are predisposed to it. So I don’t think our “much larger” pancreases are helping us out there.

  34. What about portion size? I think that’s a factor, too. Americans eat just plain more of everything at each sitting than most Asians or Europeans.

  35. The Japanese, and other Asians, do not eat anywhere near the amount of soy that Americans do because it’s not part and parcel of almost every food product they eat as it is here in the US. Virtually every processed food in the US contains soy which probably puts the US at a much higher level of soy intake per capita than any other country in the world given the amounts of processed foods most American people eat. The key is eating unprocessed foods, staying away from the center of the grocery store where the processed foods lurk, and, if you eat soy, do so in the fermented form.

    • thanks for your well-written blog! often i’ve gotten into discussions on nutrition wherein specific foods are cited as healthy or bad-fer-ya, but rarely do i encounter those who take the whole diet of a people or region–let alone food and culture together– into consideration. and i emphatically redouble Sue’s comment about the disturbing pervasiveness of processed soy byproducts in america’s food supply. i strongly suggest a book by a man named tobe, the “book of health knowledge” written about 40-50 years ago. he saw what was happening to americans as they shifted from ancestral and homestead foods to factory people-feed, and it saddened and repulsed him. he specifically despises all the processed soy that cheaply fills and saturates an increasing number of “foods” even in the 1960s and 70s. he does note that whole soybeans, raw, fermented or sprouted, are good food, and seaweed even better!

  36. We hear so much these days about ancestral diets so it is great to see you digging into what that means specifically. The one question I have struggled with is knowing which ancestral diet is most applicable to me. With so much globalization and inter-cultural marriage etc many of us are no longer intimately in touch with our ancestral roots. For me it’s even harder because I was adopted as a baby.

    • The Japanese Diet isnt really low fat. Several diets that produce good health have wrongly been labeled low fat until looked at more closely.

      The Mediterranean Diet was supposed to be low fat, but the study was stupidly flawed. Same with the Okinawan Diet which we were told was 85% carbs, until we figured out it really wasn’t.

      Same with the Japanese. They have no fear of dietary fat. They prefer the fatty cuts of meat and they eat organ meats and fatty fish. They drink whole milk.

      • I don’t agree that the Japanese drink notable amounts of whole milk, though perhaps when they do drink it, it’s usually whole. Fatty fish in general can be expensive and is more of a treat, though it is well liked. Meat (organ or otherwise) is consumed substantially less in Japan than in the US, IMO.

        I think it’s accurate do describe the Japanese diet as low fat, especially compared to American or French diets.

        • each time I have visited Japan, I have witnessed the locals practically arm-wrestling for the raw fish eyeballs with all connecting globs of stuff intact. They are definitely not averse to fat. And the fattiest cuts of fish and meat are desired.

          • fish eyes? yes, those taste good. fish head also makes a good stock.
            (Asians traditionally eat a lot of strange cuts of animals)

            Chris made a good point that it is not possible to duplicate the health results just by taking some isolated factors like soy, seaweed, red wine, green tea. so an American can take tons of green tea pills (or other “in” supplement at the moment) still won’t get as healthy. it’s the whole food culture.


          • The fat of fish consists of unsaturated fatty acid such as DHA, EPA,etc, which is essential for human body and can reduce bad cholesterol.

  37. I guess looking at cuisines, country by country is about all we can do to determine foods that give health and longevity. The human race is just not open for long term experimentation. I’m hoping that other studies are forthcoming though on cultural differences in diet.
    I took a look at comparing Japanese diets in general with those of the Okinawan islands, known for low rates of degenerative disease and the resultant health and sometimes increased longevity. There are some significant differences. From these differences, it’s still hard to deduce whether longevity is more dependent on calorie restriction, meat restriction, increases in flavonoids (sweet potatoes), increases in roughage (sweet potatoes vs white rice), increases in tumeric consumption (curcumin), percentages of fat in the diet (roughage such as in vegetables, including sweet potatoes, is converted to short-chain fats by intestinal microflora, but white rice is short on roughage), or some other difference between Okinawan and non-Okinawan diets. Still, it’s interesting to read about all the potential for improving even a typical Japanese diet.
    and it’s the comments with quotes from studies that are most interesting here:

    • And of course another factor is the higher percentage of those living a rustic, low-stress, higher-exercise, better-sleep life-style in Okinawa. Who knows how much food even matters. Sad that I have to admit this, but it is possibly mostly true. Not probably, but possibly.

    • Take a look at the Blue Zones web page. They study populations who have long life spans. They caution that there is no consistent longevity diet. They observe several factors not the least of which is how the elderly are made part of the community and get alot of love and support.

  38. Having been in Japan for work, an aspect of the Japanese diet that impressed me was it “purity”. Saw them eat raw chicken. I recoiled at this and they commented how contaminated the American food supply is. One of the big commercial US agricultural magazines described how the US pork farms growing for the Japanese market had to allow the Japanese to dictate and inspect every step of the process. This substantially increased the cost compared to what we have in our supermarkets, but also the quality.

  39. There are a couple of other things to factor in to why the Japanese diet is healthy.

    First of all, they do not eschew fat. When they eat meat they prefer very fatty cuts and do not cut fat off of food.They also eat organ meats. The claim that the Japanese eat a low fat diet is not entirely true.

    Second, they do not beleive grains are good for you. They fully understand that rice can make you fatter and when they see themselves getting chubby they cut back their rice consumption. They normally eat lots of rice ( like an addiction which is another topic concerning grains) but they have no delusions about it.

    Third, the Japanese are one of the most homogenous populations in the world. Certain traits that lend themselves to longevity can be inherited.

    • Good comments Marc, I totally agree. Having traveled to Japan many times in the last 10 years, I’m always surprised when I see their diet referred to as low fat. They seem to always eat the fattiest/oiliest fish and – as you said – prefer fatty cuts of meat and do not cut the fat off.

      I find the diet to be extremely high in salt, but perhaps that’s just because I’m always eating in restaurants rather than home cooking.

    • i don’t think they (or other Asians) consume all that much of soy tho.

      what i mean is, we do eat soy _frequently_, in the form of edamame, soy source, natto, miso, tofu, fermented tofu, fermented soy bean, bean sprouts (which is more of a vegetable), soy bean “curd” (pudding like texture),

      but i don’t believe it’s all that much from soy (in terms of calories), except for a Buddhist.

      the traditional form of consuming soy is not “soy dogs” & soy ice cream, soy cheese, flavored soy drinks, or other soy based processed food.

      FYI: i’m Chinese. most adults like soy milk w/ soy source + vinegar w/ some toppings (shrimp , meat & green onions, maybe some other veg, egg). children usually prefer sweetened. traditional soy milk tastes very beany & nothing like those fancy flavors in American market.

      & yes, agree that fatty cuts of meat is traditionally preferred. & my grandma cooked w/ lard.

      but i also believe that the longevity of Japanese is a little exaggerated.


  40. Chris, this is a great series and an examply why I always like your posts. Your thoughts and research are well balanced and you are always willing to think outside your box. With that in mind, and on a totally different topic, I would be really interested in a comprehensive review of your experience with the GAPS diet sometime in the future: what works what doesn’t, differences among patients, long term effects, relapses etc etc. There just isn’t a good review out there that I feel I can trust on the same level as your posts. Now I don’t want to highjack your comment thread with this comment so feel free to delete my comment… just wanted to let you know. Keep up the good work.

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