Did you know that life expectancy in Japan is a mighty 84 years old? It’s the highest in the world according to many surveys, and a whole 5 years greater than the average life expectancy in the USA.
Even more amazingly, Japan is home to 2 million people older than 90 years of age. In one particular place, Okinawa Island, hundreds of people are over a century old, giving it the nickname, ‘land of the immortals’.
So, what is the secret to Japanese longevity?
While high standards of hygiene and excellent healthcare contribute to Japan’s high life expectancy, diet is thought to be the most significant reason for their superior state of health.
Many of us would seriously benefit from switching to a Japanese-style diet. Many of us would lose weight especially since Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the world.
We may also lower our risks of many cancers, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, all of which have much lower rates in Japan than in many Western countries.
How easy is it to switch to a Japanese-style diet?
Switching to a Japanese-style diet is actually really simple.
Contrary to what some people may think, you don’t need to become a sushi master overnight or source elusive ingredients from specialist shops. All the foods for a healthy Japanese-style diet can easily be found in most large stores. And it is surprisingly easy to cook the Japanese way, too.
A Japanese diet is, in brief, characterized by eating a greater amount of vegetables, fish and seafood, and other plant-based proteins. It is also lower in dairy, saturated fat, processed foods and sugar than most other diets.
Authentic Japanese cuisine is fresh and super delicious; you just need to learn how to prepare the right ingredients in a few simple ways to bring out the taste in food and retain all the nutritional benefits.
A really important thing to remember is that you don’t need to eat Japanese dishes every day; you just need to adopt the principles of Japanese eating to reap the health benefits.
How to eat the Japanese way
It’s not just about what you eat; it’s about how you do it. Try to get onboard with the way Japanese people serve food for maximum health benefits.
It is common to eat communally in Japan. In other words, dishes placed in the center of the table from which everybody takes, with only a small amount in their bowl at any one time. This probably helps to prevent overeating, since there is not a set amount of food to finish right in front of you.
There is also a common expression in Japan: ‘hari hacha bu’ which translates as ‘eat until you are 80% full’. Overeating is definitely unusual in Japan.
Snacks are also healthy and modestly-sized. Desserts are healthier, too; often people choose to have fruit or something sweet but very small in size.
What to eat (and how to prepare it)
These are the foods you need to eat in abundance:
Japanese people adore vegetables. Typically, two or three types of vegetables will be served at every meal. The Japanese like to simply stir-fry vegetables in a tiny amount of oil, or steam them lightly. The short cooking time means maximum nutrition is kept inside the vegetables and not poured away with cooking water.
A diet high in vegetables is lower in calories so it is easy to maintain a healthy weight. It’s also high in fiber, which means a happy digestive system. Vegetables are also high in vitamins and minerals. All these things help to lower your risk of many diseases.
Aim to eat a rainbow of vegetables, that is.
Rather than focusing on one or two favorite vegetables, try to experiment with as many different flavors, colors and textures as possible. Stir-fry or steam vegetables to accompany meat or fish, or add some to a broth to make a delicious soup. The wider the variety of vegetables, the wider the variety of vitamins you’ll be getting.
Salads are also popular in Japan.
Raw vegetables are eaten alongside cold, cooked noodles or grains such as brown rice, perhaps some cold chicken and salmon. The ingredients are often dressed lightly in a delicious mix of oil, soy, ginger and other typical Japanese ingredients. You can replicate this style of food with the ingredients and flavors you prefer; just steer clear of creamy, fatty dressings.
Japan is a group of islands, which means an abundance of seafood nearby. The Japanese eat a lot of fish; one of the highest rates in the world.
Of course, the Japanese love to eat sushi, which is usually made from raw fish or seafood. This is super nutritious, but if it’s not your thing, then just adding more cooked fish to your diet is really healthy, too.
Most fish is naturally low in fat and can be eaten baked, steamed, pickled or smoked.
It’s also important to eat oily fish as well such as salmon. This fish is higher in fat but contains healthy fats called omega-3 fatty acids, which play a role in energy production, healthy cholesterol levels and the immune system, amongst many other benefits.
Tofu and Soya Beans
The Japanese have a love for this plant-based protein, which is also popular across much of Asia. Soya beans are low in fat, so are a healthy source of the protein our bodies need that may otherwise come from fattier sources such as dairy or red meat.
Soya beans, also known as “edamame”, are eaten both in their natural form, as soy sauce, and as tofu. They form a key ingredient in many stir-fried dishes as they are or sprouted. Edamame are also a delicious addition to salads.
The most well-known fermented foods in Japanese cuisine are miso and soy sauce, both made from soya beans. Miso is eaten in enormous volumes in Japan, most particularly as miso soup. Both are key ingredients in many Japanese dishes.
Fermentation is basically a food preservation process. Aside from changing the flavor and texture of foods, it also adds some serious health benefits to foods during the process. As the food breaks down (ferments), lots of additional goodness is added by the process, including beneficial probiotic bacteria and antioxidants.
As well as adding the typically Japanese flavors of soy and miso to stir-fries, marinades and soups, there are other ways of adding fermented foods to your diet.
Some healthy fermented foods from other cuisines include:
• Sauerkraut (pickled cabbage from Germanic cuisines)
• Kimchi (spicy pickled vegetables from Korea)
• Kombucha (fruit or herb-flavored effervescent black or green tea)
• Tempeh (also sourced from naturally fermented soy beans)
Probiotic yogurt is also a popular fermented food, although remember that a Japanese diet is low in dairy so you may prefer to consume in limitation.
Rice and Noodles
The main elements of any Japanese meal are always the vegetables and protein source, but meals will always also be accompanied by some rice, grains or noodles. These are low in fat and a healthy source of energy when eaten in moderation.
For the greatest health benefits, choose wholegrain options and brown rice.
What can you eat in strict moderation?
There’s no need to cut meat out of your diet entirely; chicken and beef are popular in Japan, too. A great steak is still on the menu. Just pick out a delicious cut of steak and cook it Japanese-style, flavored subtly with soy and garlic, with some lightly cooked vegetables on the side.
However, if you make fish, seafood and tofu your go-to protein options, you’ll find yourself cooking with meat far less often, much like a typical Japanese home-cook.
Dairy is only eaten minimally in Japan. If you are having trouble giving up the idea of a sandwich loaded with cheese for lunch, try preparing a healthy noodle or rice salad with salmon or chicken instead. This will be both tasty and satisfying.
Fatty, sugary treats are rare in Japan, so make these a very occasional treat.
Franck Mottais is the Operations Manager at Tourism Development & Investment Company or TDIC. With a true passion for food and beverage operations, Franck’s personal goal is to consistently deliver the highest quality of guest service and effectively run distinguished establishments such as KOI Restaurant & Lounge and Boa Steakhouse in Abu Dhabi.