Good Health, Longevity and the Japanese Diet
The Japanese diet is undoubtedly among the best in the world, and Japanese have one of the highest life expectancy and lowest obesity rates compared to any other nation.
So, beyond sushi and rice, what makes up the essence of the traditional Japanese diet?
According to a 2012 study by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the female obesity rate in Japan is about 3%. This compares to an astounding 36% in USA, 23% in the UK, 24% in Australia and 14% in Germany.
The Western diet is characterized by high intakes of red and processed meat, sugary desserts, high-fat foods, and refined grains. In contrast, the traditional Japanese diet is characterized by high intake of vegetables, mushrooms, fish, seaweeds, grains, soy products and green tea.
Brassicas are members of the cabbage family (also called Cruciferae). They include broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, radishes, turnips and bok choy.
The typical Japanese diet contains about five times the amount of such vegetables compared to that of the westerners. They are high in vitamins, fiber, and disease-fighting compounds called phytochemicals, and numerous studies have shown their beneficial effects.
For untold centuries, mushrooms, and notably the shiitake mushroom, have been a cornerstone of longevity in Japan (as in other Asian countries such as China) due to their well documented health-promoting properties.
Mushrooms are excellent nutrition sources for invigorating the immune system and fighting against disease and illness. They also lower cholesterol and contain powerful anti-aging antioxidants.
Five ounces (140 grams) of shiitake mushroom contains 27% of daily value of vitamin B3, 21% of vitamin B5, 21% of vitamin B6 and 18% of vitamin B2. Furthermore it is an excellent source of minerals (manganese 17%, phosphorus 16% and potassium 12.3), while having about 25 calories!
The Japanese annually consume more than 70 kg (154 pounds) of fish per person. This is compared to 26 kg (57 pounds) in western Europe and a mere 7 kg (15 pounds) in the United States.
Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids that reduce the risk of heart disease and mortality. It is an excellent source of protein that is low in fat and calories relative to meat. Moreover, fish is a good source of vitamins, such as riboflavin, and minerals, such as calcium, phosphorous, iron, zinc, potassium, iodine and magnesium.
Throughout history, Japanese have relied on a variety of seaweeds such as Kobmu, Wakame and Nori as a staple diet. In Japan, seaweed is consumed abundantly in soups, sushi, salads, stir fry and numerous side dishes.
Seaweeds contain high amounts of minerals, fiber, vitamin C, beta-carotene, and pantothenic acid and riboflavin (the two B-vitamins needed for your body to produce energy.)
The Japanese diet includes huge amounts of rice, cooked and eaten with no butter or oil. A low-fat, complex carbohydrate, rice is a filling dish, which leaves less room for cravings.
This humble, inexpensive soy product is a great source of easy-to-digest protein, packed with an impressive array of nutrients. In clinical studies tofu has been definitively shown to lower cholesterol and improve cardiovascular function.
Japanese have a strong cultural association with green tea. Even the convenience stores and vending machines carry a wide selection of both hot and cold bottled green teas. A thermos full of green tea is a common staple on family or school outings or as an accompaniment to lunch boxes.
Scientific research has linked increased consumption of green tea with reduced risk of cancer and heart disease. Also, large number of studies show that regular consumption of green tea has significant beneficial health effects such as helping with weight loss, reducing LDL “bad” cholesterol, suppressing growth of cancer cells, reducing risk of heart disease and increasing immunity to viral infections.
Green tea is also high in ant-aging antioxidants. Green tea differs from black tea in that black tea leaves undergo a process of fermentation, while green tea leaves do not. This fermentation process significantly decreases the amount of antioxidants in tea leaves.
The 80% Rule
Japanese have an old saying which goes “hara hachi bu”. It means one should stop eating when one feels 80% full.
It takes the human brain about 20 minutes to process the information coming from the stomach. In other words, if we continue eating until our brain recognizes that we are full, we have been overeating for an extra 20 minutes without realizing!
Try it. You will feel 100% full in 20 minutes, while eating 20% less!