Lessons from Japan - Eat like a Japanese

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Wednesday, 23 May 2012.
Tagged: healthy cooking, healthy eating, healthy lifestyle, longevity

Lessons from Japan - Eat like a Japanese
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The traditional Japanese diet comes close to the perfect diet - and it's delicious too. Sashimi, prawn tempura, chicken teriyaki, beef yakitori and seafood ramen noodle soup. There's lots to love about Japanese food. It's light, fresh and flavoursome. And here's the best reason of all - it's one of the healthiest cuisines to eat in the world.

The traditional Japanese diet, with its emphasis on vegetables, seafood, soy, clear broth, rice, green tea and seaweed, is a semi-vegetarian diet with less fat, less sugar and more antioxidants than ours. It has none of the rich desserts, pastries and sweets of European cuisines. And it's paying dividends for the people who eat it.

In the midst of a global obesity epidemic, the Japanese have the lowest obesity rates in the developed world - 3 per cent compared to over 20 percent for Australians as well as lower rates of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and some (but not all) cancers.

The elders of Okinawa

The Japanese are the world champions of longevity with an average life expectancy of 85 years for women and almost 80 for men. And Japan boasts the highest number of centenarians (people who live to be over 100) of any country.

Many of these centenarians live on Okinawa, one of a large group of islands south-west of Japan. More than any other population, older Okinawans are fit and agile, and their minds are clear and lucid. Few suffer the lifestyle-related diseases like heart disease, hormone-dependent cancer, diabetes and dementia that are so common in their western counterparts.

The women have a natural menopause and both sexes show strong bones well into their 80s and 90s.

While their genes confer some protection, it's the healthy diet and active lifestyle (martial arts, dancing, gardening, walking everywhere) that helps the Okinawans live to extreme ages, as born out by the landmark Okinawa Centenarian Study which ran for 25 years. This has become a New York Times bestseller The Okinawa Program.

Living lean

The Japanese diet also works to keep you slim. In her book Japanese Women Don't Get Fat or Old, Naomi Moriyama reveals the secrets of both the Japanese diet and its culture that keep Japanese so slim and youthful. Having grown up in Japan, it was not until she moved to the US to study that Naomi first put on weight and realised how her Japanese meals kept her slim without working out.

Surprisingly, top of her list is home cooked meals - and not eating out. Japanese women are masters of simple home cooking which hold great appreciation. The classic home cooked meal is a piece of grilled fish with steamed rice and simmered vegetables, accompanied by a bowl of hot miso soup, to be finished off with sliced fresh fruit and a cup of hot green tea - considerably easier than the sushi and sashimi that leap into mind when westeners think of Japanese food!

Small portions of food are served on beautiful, small tableware - very important in Japan - and exercise forms a daily part of life - walking, bike riding and gardening.

Food variety

In Japan, dietary guidelines recommend to consume at least 30 different foods daily, a ruling unique to Japan. While other countries stress variety (especially when it comes to vegetables and fruit), only Japan has gone so far as to quantify an actual number to aim for.

According to Nutrition Australia, people who eat a wide variety of foods are healthier, have a reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes and live longer. And they're more likely to meet their nutrient needs, particularly important for the over 50s.

They estimate the average Australian eats only 15 to 18 different foods per week, well below what the Japanese suggest.

The salt trap

The single bad aspect is the saltiness. Salty sauces such as soy sauce, teriyaki sauce or oyster sauce take the place of salt in Japan and impart a wonderful flavour. But don't overdo them as they can send your overall salt intake sky high which sets the scene for high blood pressure and stomach cancer - two health concerns in certain regions of Japan.


6 key foods in the Japanese diet and why they're good for you



Fish is the meat of Japan. Nearly 10 per cent of the world's fish is consumed by the Japanese, yet they make up only 2 per cent of the world's population. Salmon is the most sought after, followed closely by tuna. Both are excellent sources of omega-3 fats, essential for a healthy heart and mind.


Packed with vitamins, minerals and phyto-nutrients, vegetables are low fat, low kilojoule and high fibre. They fill you up and stop you eating too much.


Short grain white rice is the Japanese staple. Rich in carbohydrates, it has little sodium (salt), saturated fat, trans fat or cholesterol. Plain rice is a must-have food with every meal. It's filling and replaces many less nutritious alternatives in other cuisines - think creamy mash, bread with butter, or pasta in a heavy sauce. A tip for how you can eat even more healthily than the average Japanese is to capitalise on the expert advice to ‘eat more whole grains': eat brown rice!


Miso soup, edamame, tofu, natto beans. The Japanese consume an average of 50 grams of soy per day compared to less than 5 grams for the average Westerner. Women in Japan have very low rates of breast cancer and men have lower rates of prostate cancer than women or men in Australia - thanks in part to the isoflavonoids plant hormones from soy. These are natural substances which mimic the action of the female hormone oestrogen and "block" its cancer-promoting ability.

A recent study found that Japanese men had much higher levels of isoflavonoid in their blood compared to Finnish men due to their liking for tofu.


Like rice, noodles are another staple. They are low in fat and full of filling carbohydrate. The Japanese cook noodles made from mung beans and buckwheat (soba), not just wheat.


The flavonoids from green tea help the Japanese avoid heart troubles and live longer.

Catherine Saxelby About the author

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