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Health Lessons from International Cuisines: Japan


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healthy japanese cuisine, healthy recipes from japan
Healthy Japanese cuisine is about balance. istock.com/m_bielecki

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.

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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.

  1. I have a question for you, I’ve seen that Japanese food like sushi are not usually cooked.

    Isn’t this unhealthy by any means to eat raw meat? What is your opinion on this?

    • 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.

  2. 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,

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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。

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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