You have probably heard about the western diet and how it is causing health problems in our population.
The Mediterranean diet is an option if you don’t want that influence in your life, but it is not the only one.
According to statistics, Japanese people and those living in Asian countries have better health, and their risk of dying from western diseases is significantly low.
But what do they do? Is it a genetic predisposition to be healthier? Is the diet contributing to their strengthened health?
In this article, we’re covering one type of diet that not everybody talks about. It is the traditional Japanese diet.
This diet has been held for many years and could be one of the reasons behind Japanese longevity and lower predisposition for cardiovascular disease and chronic health problems.
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What is the traditional Japanese diet?
The Japanese name is washoku, which roughly means Japanese cuisine. This type of diet includes very balanced ingredients and a very low intake of saturated fat and oil. If you know a bit about Japanese food, you may remember ramen. However, the typical Japanese diet does not include this and other popular foods in the Western world. It is influenced by Buddhist society, which encouraged eating vegetarian food instead of meat. Thus, you will find dishes such as tofu, seaweed, and pumpkin. In almost every food, you’re very likely to find rice, too.
A fascinating modality of the Japanese diet is known as the Okinawa diet. Okinawa is a small Japanese island, and it is full of healthy people with a very long lifespan. They follow the same essential diet, but they often change white rice for other healthy sources such as whole grains and sweet potato. Their tofu is a variant known as Shima-dofu, which has much more phytonutrients than the original recipe.
But regardless of the subtype, the Japanese diet is known to be associated with longevity, as we will review below. We will also give you a detailed list of foods to eat and what foods to avoid. But as an overview, we can say a few things about this diet and its variants:
- It gives more importance to fresh food and only uses minimally-processed foods.
- The diet highlights natural food flavors instead of masking them with too many spices, salt, or sauce.
- This diet has a low level of fat and added sugar. Instead, it highlights fruits and vegetables, noodles, and rice.
- One of the only meats is fish, and it may also contain dairy and eggs.
Most of the foods in the Japanese diet contain what is now called umami flavor. It is also known as the fifth taste because it is different from the usual salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. This is a naturally-occurring flavor found in many vegetables such as asparagus, soybean, sweet potato, and cabbage (1).
Another interesting aspect of Japanese cuisine is that the dishes and portions are not large. They are also meant to be eaten with chopsticks, which reduces the size of the bite. Thus, instead of filling ourselves with food, we tend to enjoy more the taste of food. This element of Japanese cuisine is an interesting add-on if we want to control our calorie intake (1,2).
Benefits of a Japanese diet
It is a fact that Japanese people have a very long lifespan. The typical American has a standard life expectancy of 75 to 80 years. In contrast, Japanese people usually live 79 to 86 years. Moreover, they live longer without any disability, according to reports by the World Health Organization. Their obesity rate is much lower (3%) as compared to French people (11%) and Americans (32%) (3,4).
Is this the result of their diet? Apparently, their dietary patterns play a significant role. Scientific evidence shows that a Japanese-style diet and their food choices can benefit our health in many ways:
It contributes to rich nutrition.
The Japanese diet has many fruits and vegetables. It includes high nutrient density foods with abundant fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Among the top minerals in the Japanese diet, we have potassium, magnesium, calcium, iron. There are also plenty of vitamins, especially vitamin A, vitamin C, and vitamin E.
If you look at the sample diet plan, you will notice how frequently seaweed is consumed in the Japanese diet. They also consume a lot of green tea as the most common beverage. Both seaweed and green tea contain plenty of antioxidants. These substances are free radical scavengers. They neutralize the effects of free radicals, protecting the body against their damage (5).
Another healthy nutrient in Japanese cuisine is omega 3 fatty acids. This is a type of unsaturated fatty acid with a long chain. In contrast with saturated fat, omega 3 is a healthy type of fat. It contributes to the structure of tissues such as the brain, the eye, and the skin. Plus, it also has anti-inflammatory properties instead of the inflammatory potential of saturated fat (6).
It improves digestion
The Japanese diet contains vegetables that contribute to healthy digestion. The most important are perhaps soybeans, seaweed, and many high-fiber veggies. There are two types of fiber in the Japanese diet. One of them is insoluble fiber, which adds to the stool and increases the bulk. This promotes bowel movements and prevents constipation. The other type is soluble fiber, which feeds healthy bacteria of the gut (7).
Moreover, healthy bacteria feed on soluble fiber and create waste material. But what they consider waste materials are beneficial for us. They are known as short-chain fatty acids. These small fatty acids are an essential source of energy for the cells in the intestines. They also have significant anti-inflammatory potential, relieving ulcerative colitis symptoms, Crohn’s disease, and irritable bowel disease. And if you don’t have enough beneficial bacteria to create these metabolites, that is also covered. Fermented vegetables and pickled fruits in the Japanese diet contain live bacteria for your gut microbiota (8).
It keeps you in a healthy weight
Many aspects of the Japanese diet keep us from gaining weight and becoming obese. One of them is that this diet is very low in fat and added sugar. Secondly, the Japanese diet features small dishes, small-sized portions, and it is eaten with chopsticks. All of this contributes to a reduction of the calorie count.
There is also an interesting practice when eating in a Japanese home. They apply something called the 80% rule, which is basically eating until you’re 80% full. Since they do not reach 100%, their risk of overeating is significantly smaller, and their calorie counts further decrease.
Fiber also plays a role in keeping a healthy weight. This adds bulk to our food and contributes to the sensation of satiety. But in contrast with simple carbohydrates, fiber is not absorbed by the body. It makes you feel satiated without contributing to the calorie count (9).
It keeps you away from chronic diseases
This benefit is typical if you maintain a healthy weight, but it is also noteworthy and deserves special consideration. You will be controlling your calorie intake, protecting you from overeating, and improving your insulin sensitivity. All of this protects you from type 2 diabetes and chronic health conditions.
According to a study in people who followed this diet for six weeks, the risk factors of type 2 diabetes declined significantly. The participants reduced their weight and their LDL cholesterol levels. They were middle-aged men and still experienced significant improvements in their health parameters (10).
Another chronic health problem in the elderly is dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Many patients suffer from cancer and Parkinson’s disease, too. According to scientific evidence, the Japanese diet may also reduce the incidence of all of these health problems at once by a high intake of green tea (11,12).
It reduces the incidence of cardiovascular disease
In the majority of studies, the Japanese diet links with a reduction of cardiovascular disease. As noted above, the risk factors are notably reduced by the type of food these individuals tend to consume. However, cardiovascular disease deserves a particular mention, and one study showed impressive results after evaluating Japanese people who consume the traditional diet.
This study was a large-scale prospective study performed in 11 public health centers in Japan and involving over 35,000 men and 40,000 women. They were healthy men and women when starting the study, and they were followed-up for ten years. After evaluating the patients’ medical records and death certificates, the investigators found that Japanese men and women who followed a traditional Japanese diet had a lower death risk than the average. They were notably less likely to die from cardiovascular disease.
Past studies have shown that the Japanese diet reduces mortality from chronic disease. However, this new finding shows that even in Japanese people, adhering more closely to the traditional Japanese diet reduces cardiovascular disease risk (13).
It contributes to increasing longevity
As noted above, significant data points out at food choices as one reason why Japanese people live for a longer time. Mortality from chronic disease reduces. Mortality for major chronic problems also reduces. Studies even mention that all-cause mortality also reduces.
Thus, these patients avoid the most common causes of death in the Western world and live longer. The numbers can do the talking. In the study mentioned above, men who adhered to the traditional eating style in Japanese culture had a 15% lower chance of dying prematurely (13).
Thus, the Japanese diet is not only thought to be beneficial for our health. Scientific data widely support this assumption. Can you benefit from this diet? Of course, as long as you stick to the foods and eating style for an extended period.
In the following sections, we’re giving you a helpful list of foods to include in the diet and another list of those foods you want to avoid.
Foods included in a Japanese diet
- Fish and seafood: They make up one of the most important protein sources in the Japanese diet. All types of fish can be consumed in this diet, but the cooking style is important. Do not fry fish and seafood in oil. Instead, use steaming, baking, and grilling. Raw fish is also common in Japanese cuisine, especially in sashimi and sushi.
- Soy-based foods: Soy is a very versatile food that you can use in different ways. There is even soy meat and tastes great when you know how to prepare it. If you don’t know soy-based foods, you will slowly get acquainted with tofu, miso, edamame, natto, tamari, and the so-famous soy sauce.
- Seaweed: Seaweed is particularly important in Japanese cuisine and has many benefits, as reviewed above. There are different types and preparations, and you can eat them raw or dried.
- Rice and noodles: They are considered the most common staple foods in Japan. In most cases, you will find rice as the most popular choice. But, in other cases, you can find noodles instead. In Okinawa, they often replace rice with sweet potatoes and whole grains.
- Tempura: This is one of the only applications of wheat flour that you will see in Japanese cuisine. Wheat is mixed with sparkling or iced water to create a very light dough, and you can use it to cook vegetables and seafood.
- Fruits and vegetables: Many fruits and vegetables are consumed in the Japanese diet, and there is no restriction for them. They are usually eaten pickled, raw, steamed, or in soups.
- Green tea and barley tea: These are the most common beverages in Japanese cuisine. Sake and beer are sometimes consumed, but only with dinner.
Foods avoided in a Japanese diet
- Poultry and red meat: Consuming too much red meat is one of the most common Western diet problems. Red meat includes pork and beef. Poultry includes chicken, duck, and similar foods. Some variants of the Japanese diet may include a minimal amount of red meat or poultry.
- Eggs: Like red meat and poultry, consuming eggs is not contemplated in the most traditional Japanese diet, but other variants include this type of food in a limited amount. If you ever consume eggs, avoid frying preparations and prefer healthier cooking methods such as boiling.
- Dairy: Milk and dairy are not included in the most traditional Japanese diet. More modern variants include some dairy but in a minimal amount. In this category, you have milk, cheese, yogurt, butter, and similar products. Some dairy products are prohibited, especially if they are processed foods or have added sugar. Ice cream is the best example.
- Sauces, saturated fats, oils: Fried foods are rarely consumed in the Japanese diet. They do not use cooking oils. Fat-rich dressings and sauces should also be avoided. Margarine contains trans-fat, and it is also a bad choice. You can use some olive oil, but not every day.
- Processed foods: The Japanese diet should not include anything that is highly processed, such as potato chips and some breakfast cereals. Minimally processed foods are preferred, including canned vegetables and frozen fruit.
- Sugary foods and drinks: Sugary food and everything that contains added sugar should be avoided in a Japanese diet. Thus, avoid candies and sugary granola bars. Always read the labels to look for added sugars and avoid this type of food. Beverages such as fizzy drinks are not recommended, either. If you drink coffee or tea, try not to use refined sugar.
- Baked goods: They are very common in the Western world, but not in Japanese cuisine. Thus, avoid eating bread, muffins, brownies, tortillas, pita, and other baked goods, especially if they have added sugars.
Japanese diet plan sample
If you want to adopt a Japanese diet, a list of foods will probably not be enough. You need to know how to arrange food in a diet sample.
As a general overview, the Japanese diet includes staple food and soup, a main dish, and one or more side dishes. For example, you can have:
- Staple food: The most traditional staple food is rice or soba. It can be sweet potatoes and whole grains in the Okinawa version of the Japanese diet plan.
- Soup: In most cases, it will be miso soup. Other options may also be considered, usually consisting of fermented soybean, seaweed, tofu, shellfish, or vegetables and noodles.
- Main dish: In most cases, it involves fresh fish and seafood. Other protein sources include eggs, natto, or tofu. If you don’t want to stick to the most traditional cuisine, you can also add poultry and red meat in small amounts.
- Side dish: It can be one or more side dishes, usually consisting of seaweed, wild plants, pickled fruit, or vegetables in different preparations.
- Beverages: Green tea is one of the most popular beverages in this cuisine. Optionally, you can also drink barley tea. You may take sake and beer, but only for dinner, and there are small cups for that.
Sample menu for 3 days
How does the traditional Japanese diet look like if you decide to adopt it for three days?
- Day 1: It all starts with a miso soup breakfast with seaweed salad, natto, and rice. For lunch, you can have grilled tuna accompanied by dashi broth and soba noodles. As a side dish, you’ll have boiled vegetables and kale salad. For dinner, you can prepare fish cakes, edamame, noodle soup, and marinated vegetables.
- Day 2: Day two also starts with miso soup breakfast and rice, but you will have pickled fruit and dried trout this time. For lunch, you can prepare marinated tofu accompanied by clamp soup and rice balls. As a side dish, you’ll have a portion of vegetable salad. For dinner, you can eat the remnants of miso soup from the morning accompanied by seaweed salad and pickled ginger.
- Day 3: Now, instead of miso soup, you can take udon noodles as breakfast and eat pickled vegetables with shrimp and boiled eggs. For lunch, try a dish of seared scallops with rice cakes and steamed vegetables accompanied by shiitake and mushroom soup. You can go back to miso soup and steamed rice for dinner, but this time with salmon and vegetable tempura.
Traditional Japanese food is an excellent alternative to the Mediterranean diet if you want more options. According to statistics and scientific papers, this type of eating is one reason why Japanese people live for a longer time than American men and women. Japanese cooking avoids oils and saturated fats, and their eating habits make Japanese meals one of the most nutrient-dense options. It is a healthy diet with a high nutrient intake. This diet is also associated with multiple health benefits that include better weight control, reduced cardiovascular disease, and much more.
Sea vegetables, fermented food, fish, and rice are all critical parts of this cuisine. They always have soups included in the menu and prepare vegetables in a variety of ways. The most common beverage in this cuisine is green tea, and sake is only consumed at night.
By adopting this healthy eating style, people living in Western countries may reduce mortality risk, all-cause death, and increase longevity. Thus, even though it is very different from what we are used to, there are many reasons to adopt new habits and learn new recipes.