A Japanese diet for health
Following the Olympics in Tokyo this year it’s a good time to look at the traditional Japanese diet – thought to be one of the healthiest on the planet. Japan has one of the longest life expectancies in the world, and diet is thought to play a major part in this.
The traditional diet is based on whole, unprocessed ingredients and is packed with health-promoting foods like fish and seafood, fruit and vegetables, and gut-friendly fermented foods - while minimising red meat, dairy, baked goods and sugary foods. Fresh, seasonal foods are served in small dishes - either raw or lightly cooked to emphasise the natural flavours. It’s a little different to the way many of us eat but with such an impressive reputation it is definitely worth thinking about.
Typical Japanese foods
- Fish and seafood - steamed, baked, grilled, or raw
- Vegetables - steamed, sautéed, fermented or in soups
- Rice and noodles - steamed or served in hot broth
- Seaweed - raw or dried
- Soy foods - like edamame and tofu, or fermented soy like miso and natto
- Fruit - raw or fermented
- Beverages – hot green tea and cold barley tea
Nutritional highlights of the Japanese diet
The diet is low calorie and nutrient dense - minimally processed foods retain more nutrients overall and lots of low calorie foods result in a favourable nutrient-to-calorie ratio. There is plenty of fibre from vegetables, seaweed, and soybeans. It is also high in gut-friendly probiotics, thanks to regular consumption of fermented foods. Daily consumption of fish and sea-foods provide plentiful Omega 3 fatty acids. Finally, the diet is packed with health promoting phytonutrients, like antioxidants and flavonoids which are abundant in fruit, vegetables and green tea.
It should be noted that the health benefits of soy foods found in clinical studies mainly refer to fermented forms of soy, not the processed soy products that adorn our supermarket shelves. You can read more about this topic here.
The traditional Japanese diet has been studied in association with many health conditions:
Weight control: a diet based on high fibre foods and soups helps the body feel full without taking in excess calories. Food is typically low in sugar and is served in small portion sizes, without snacks between meals.
Heart disease: Studies have found those following the traditional Japanese diet have significantly reduced LDL cholesterol, and the risk of heart disease is unexpectedly low despite a relatively high salt intake
Type 2 diabetes: the low intake of sugar and refined carbohydrates helps to balance blood sugar and results in significantly fewer risk factors for type 2 diabetes, including excess weight
Gut health: High amounts of fibre help to reduce the chance of constipation, while probiotics nourish the microflora and improve digestion
Neurological health: Regular intake of green tea is thought to protect against Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s, while high levels of omega 3 can protect against mental health conditions like depression and anxiety
Healthy bones: the diet is naturally high in calcium and magnesium, and the Japanese population shows a low level of osteoporosis despite rarely eating dairy.
A typical daily menu
Meals (including breakfast) usually start with a soup followed by a protein source and a selection of nutrient boosting side dishes. Snacks between meals are uncommon. If deserts are eaten they are based on natural flavours from fruits, matcha or red bean paste, rather than added sugars.
If you are interested in trying the traditional Japanese diet for yourself, here are some ideas to get you started:
Soup: miso or udon noodle soup
Protein: dried trout, natto, shimp, boiled egg or omelette
Sides: steamed rice, seaweed salad, pickled fruit or vegetables
Soup: Broth or soup made with soba noodles, clams or shiitake
Protein: grilled tuna, seared scallops or marinated tofu
Sides: kale salad, rice balls wrapped in seaweed, cooked-vegetable salad, steamed vegetables
Soup: miso or udon noodle soup,
Protein: fish cakes, sushi, tuna or salmon
Sides: steamed rice, edamame, salads, seaweed, pickled or fermented vegetables and ginger
While eating the Traditional Japanese diet might not turn you into an Olympian, it can certainly pack in health-promoting nutrients, help trim excess weight and reduce the risk of several chronic diseases.