Did you know, Japan consistently ranks number one in the world for life expectancy; that’s according to numerous sources including the World Health Organisation. A lot of it comes down to what the Japanese people eat, where their diet is known to work wonders for their health, so much so that many other people are now trying to promote and maintain a ‘Japanese diet’ throughout the world.
So here is the big question. What does a typical Japanese diet consist of? And what are the effects and benefits of following it?
If we are to understand what makes a Japanese diet, we also have to understand that food culture is remarkably different in numerous ways to those in the western world. If you thought it was just about what was on the plate — I’m afraid there is a bit more to it.
Talking of which, a single plate at meal times is a rare thing. You will often find that a single person will be in possession of a number of plates and bowls ranging somewhere from a paltry three, up to perhaps ten or above. The more extravagant the meal, the more bowls you have; this is more so the case with traditional meals such as those found in a Ryokan (traditional Japanese inn).
Each bowl contains one type of food that is eaten directly from, meaning (for the most part) there is no dragging food from a side dish to a main plate.
This is all relevant to Japanese nutrition and diet for a number of reasons. Firstly, each bowl contains only a small amount of food and overall portions are often smaller. Secondly, this often leads to more variety at meal times rather than lots of the same.
Another way that food culture in Japan varies and is important to the discussion, is how very few condiments and flavours are added to prepared food. Much of the taste and flavours that are present, are naturally in the food; should a dish require something extra, another ingredient with the characteristics is added — rather than using sauces, spices etc.
Soy sauce is an exception to the rule, but even then it is used as a dipping sauce rather than an all over seasoning.
The Japanese diet
So now we get to the main point, what do the Japanese eat?
Being an island nation, fish is a key food in many dishes in some form or another. Sushi definitely falls under this, but not all sushi contains fish. (Sushi actually refers to the sticky rice and vinegar combination.) Sashimi on the other hand is raw fish and a popular dish to be consumed. Along similar lines, Roe are types of fish eggs that are also widely consumed.
Most fish products will contain high amounts of vitamin D, B6 and B12 as well as omega-3 and 6.
Vegetables are also a big part of Japanese cuisine and are eaten in a wide variety. In particular, soybeans play a big role in everyday Japanese foods.
Tofu is one example made using soy milk which is in turn made from soybeans, and is often eaten alongside of — or included in — elements of daily Japanese meals.
Miso soup however is a core part of a Japanese diet, again made in part using soybeans. It is a soup broth that forms the base of many dishes or is eaten as a side dish; within the broth many other vegetables will be present — including tofu.
Soybeans and soybean based products are full of minerals such magnesium and potassium; vitamins such as riboflavin and thiamin; as well as being a low fat source of good protein and calcium levels.
Other vegetables that are popular include both spring and green onions, bamboo shoots, and seaweed.
Moving away from vegetables, other favourite foods in a Japanese diet are eggs and a variety of meats such as pork, beef, and chicken. All of these provide useful nutrients when consumed in balance with other foods.
Meats are good sources of protein and iron, as well as vitamin B.
Surprising side note
Two foods have been left out which are also a core part of a Japanese diet — rice and noodles. Of all the staple foods of a Japanese diet these two are perhaps the least beneficial. This is because both of these contain a huge amount of carbohydrates with a high calorie count whilst also stripping natural nutrients when cooked.
That being said, they’re not bad for you, just not as good as everything else.
Achievability at home?
Most foods in a Japanese diet are not so unusual that it cannot be replicated at home in some form or another. Fish, meats, eggs, and vegetables are all common enough in most countries but the trouble may come in finding things such as the roe and seaweed which is less commonly consumed and choices may be limited depending on where you shop.
Creating an authentic miso soup could also prove to be a bit challenging; it requires miso paste which should be obtainable in supermarkets but also requires creating a ‘dashi’ or stock with ingredients such as dried kelp and bonito flakes which are somewhat rarer. Of course more common substitutes can be experimented with.
Other than the food however, think back to the portion sizes and the variety of a single meal. This is perhaps where the biggest changes will take place and require a bit more adjusting to, as well as resisting the urge to cover everything in seasoning. Many of us talk about a balanced diet but a Japanese diet implements it in almost every meal.
The best thing about that element is that it’s totally achievable.
When talking about a Japanese diet ‘balance’ is the word that should be at the forefront of every instructional guide but rarely is. Much of the food contained in a Japanese diet is not unusual and packs in a lot of the nutritional values that the body requires; if eaten every day or at least regularly — as is the case in Japan — then the benefits can quickly be enjoyed.
But piling up on all these ‘good’ foods is only half the battle. Smaller portions but more variety is where the Japanese diet really is — even the ‘bad’ foods can become somewhat good.