On average, nobody lives longer than Japanese people. Japanese women have a life expectancy of 89 years, 8 years longer than an American woman. What’s their secret? Read on to find out what we can learn from the Japanese culture.
Why should we pay attention to the average Japanese diet?
Japan is one of the leading countries in the world for longevity. With this fact, it’s no wonder that there are many studies aimed at trying to learn their secrets. You may have heard of the Blue Zones. This is a term coined for some of the pockets in the world where the average citizen lives past 100 years of age. Okinawa, Japan is one of these Blue Zones. Researchers have sought to find what the similarities are in these zones and how we can apply the research to our own lives, in the attempt to increase our longevity. Diet, with no surprise, is one of the keys to a long life.
The Japanese base their diet by the following standards:
At first glance, this may seem shocking. We are continually taught, in North America, to limit our grains. Yet the Japanese, with an obesity rate of only 3.6% (compared to 32% in the US), are consuming up to seven servings per day. What is the difference?
There are a few obvious differences to note. The majority of Japanese grain dishes include rice, vitamin-enriched rice, rice with cereal, a variety of Japanese noodles, and rice cakes. They have a very limited intake of refined grains and bread; although readily available to them.
Their next highest food group is vegetables, aiming to consume up to six servings per day. Many of these vegetables are dark leafy greens, cruciferous cabbage, sprouts, seaweed and fermented or pickled veggies. Pickled and fermented foods help to prolong the life of the vegetable but also provide beneficial nutrients to your gut. Gut flora is vital in long-term health. Seaweed is considered, in the US, as a type of superfood. Filled with essential minerals and protein, it is regularly coined as an easy to include, nutrient-dense, addition to meals and snacks. Sprouts are also small and powerful nutrient superstars. Simply adding them to salad and soups boosts nutrition.
The list goes on to highlight meat and protein, milk products and fruit. Why do we love this? Although fruit has many delicious nutrients, many of those same nutrients can be found in vegetables. Fruit, like it or not, tends to be higher on the glycemic index and can impact blood sugar balance. At Low Fat Low Carb, we are continually encouraging people to eat more veggies. Yes, fruit is convenient, but you’ll support your body more with more veggies and this takes daily practice.
Their protein, although it includes beef and pork, is more centered around fresh and salty fish, tofu and fermented soy. Organic and unprocessed soybeans are extremely healthy for our bodies. They provide clean protein with little to no saturated fats. They also help modulate our hormonal balance. Fermented soy adds the beneficial probiotics that our body needs. Fish is higher in minerals and essential fats. Creating a better balance of fat in the body. More nutrition with less impact to our system.
Now, the servings indicated on their food chart do not discuss portion size. Japanese culture encourages small dishes. Mainly due to the high food prices in Japan. In fact, in 1999, food prices were 49% higher in Tokyo than in New York City. Despite this, Japanese people still choose to spend a higher percentage of their budget on home cooked, small portioned meals. We know that when we eat fresh, we tend to eat more healthy; consuming less sodium and refined foods.
Let’s have a quick refresher on the new American Food Pyramid.
The American Food Pyramid differs some from the Japanese’s diet. It lists grains at 6 oz, which would be approximately three 1/2 cup servings. Vegetables are next at 2.5 cups (or 2-3 servings), fruit at 2 cups (2-4 servings), 3 cups of milk or other and 5.5 oz of meat or alternative, which we would assume to be just over one serving daily. It seems that even with this different allocation of food groups, the variation in daily caloric intake between a Japanese person and an American is only 200 calories.
Here’s something that we found interesting, and can also impact our analysis of the differences between the two cultural diets. The research performed by The BMJ, which followed over 79,000 Japanese for 15 years, also looked at the compliance of Japanese people to their diet standards. Accordingly, 67% of Japanese people follow the standards of their diet as noted above. This is compared to a merely 13% of Americans who adhere to their standard food pyramid. Again, this proves to be quite interesting. Not only do Americans have a different suggested nutritional plan but only 13% follow these recommendations. Whereas Japanese people are more dedicated to their nutritional standards. Surprisingly, Japanese who have immigrated to the US and who maintain their traditional food structure, maintain this longevity and lower obesity rate. However, Japanese who adopt the American “way of eating” will gain weight and join the millions whose BMI is over 25. Proving, once again, that we could learn a few things from the Japanese culture.
Why can a high cereal/grain intake help you avoid obesity?
We believe that it isn’t possible to have a realistic interpretation of obesity rates if we look at their grain intake in isolation. Lifestyle plays a role, always. What we do note is that their meals are traditional to their culture and focus largely on grains. They have a higher intake of vegetables and a moderate amount of protein that is pivoting on fresh fish. Could this be the link? Rather than noting their grain intake, what if we focus on their 6 servings of vegetables daily? They tend to stay away from processed foods. We know that processed foods can wreak havoc on your gut and cause an imbalance; which in turn can lead to an inflammatory state and an increase in body fat. Vegetables create an alkaline state in the body, therefore lessening inflammation and supporting your body with beneficial nutrients. Western grains also tend to be over-processed. When choosing grains, ensure that the grains you eat are whole grains like quinoa, buckwheat or whole grain rice.
There is always merit to eating according to your cultural type. If you are African, you will most likely thrive with an African diet. Japanese tend to follow their cultural ways of eating, regardless of their geography. In fact, the more they follow their traditional food guide, the lower their mortality rate.
There is an old Japanese saying, “we eat with our eyes.” The presentation of the food is very important, and particular attention is given to the colors and textures. Foods are enjoyed as much for their eye appeal as their flavor. Each food is served on a separate plate or in a separate bowl. Portions are much smaller at a Japanese restaurant or with home prepared meals than typical in the U.S. An elegant dining experience might consist of dozens of small dishes, some no more than a few bites. They typically end their meals with a fresh piece of fruit, rather than a high-calorie dessert. The meal is meant to be beautiful, as well as delicious. Something that is often overlooked in the fast-paced lifestyle of the American diet.
How can we benefit from their standard diet?
Their meals tend to be uncomplicated. Fresh vegetables that highlight the taste of the vegetable itself. No rich sauce to mask flavors. They enjoy pickled and fermented vegetables. They eat sprouts. Their meats are simple, eaten fresh or lightly cooked and often cured. They enjoy high quality and fresh fish, often eaten raw. They eat rice, a lot of rice, which is indigenous to their culture. They limit their sweets and get their sweetness from fresh fruit.
There are so many benefits to eating whole, live and natural foods that are high in nutrients and that the body understands. Let’s start by increasing our fresh vegetable intake. Add low GI veggies to every meal and snack. Learn to love your veggies without dip. Make more stir-frys, if you must, and start loving salads. Keep your grains whole. Rice, quinoa, buckwheat and wheat berries are very beneficial to the body, adding necessary B vitamins and protein to your diet. Limit everything else. Choose lean meats. Choose low GI fruits like berries and only enjoy one to two servings daily.
Healthy eating is actually quite easy. Stop for a moment and enjoy the variety of tastes available to you. Take your time when you are eating. Make it an experience, rather than a chore. You, too, will soon love your diet when you learn to love real food.
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