People in Japan are blessed with enviable health. Life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world: 80 for men and 86 for women, compared to 76 for men and 81 for women in the United States, with a large proportion of Japan’s elderly remaining active and energetic well into their seventies, and often into their eighties. Japan is also the world’s slimmest developed nation, with an average Body Mass Index of 3.2 percent compared with 30.6 percent in the US.
While genetics and the Japanese universal health care system are both important factors, these impressive statistics also reflect the benefits of the Japanese diet, which contains a unique combination of beneficial foods.
The traditional staple of the Japanese diet is plain, steamed rice, which is eaten with every meal. An indication of the importance of rice to Japanese cuisine can be seen in the words for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Japanese, which translate into English as “morning rice,” “day rice” and “evening rice.”
Plain steamed rice without added oil or sauce not only fills without fattening, but also contains cancer-fighting protease inhibitors, and is believed to prevent high blood pressure and kidney problems.
Soybeans are a source of high quality, cholesterol-free protein, polyunsaturated fats, and essential minerals including calcium, iron and zinc. Soy-rich foods are known to have several benefits. They can help to prevent breast cancer and control blood pressure, improve the circulation, and maintain optimum cholesterol levels.
The Japanese eat soy in several forms: Edamame or boiled soy beans are a popular snack; miso soup, which is eaten frequently, is made from fermented soy beans; and tofu is used as an ingredient in miso soup and other dishes.
One particular soy product unique to Japan is natto, a fermented bean product which is high in vitamin K, which helps to maintain bone health, and vitamin PQQ, which is linked to healthy skin. Some studies indicate that nattokinase, a substance found in natto, may ward off Alzheimer’s disease and may also prevent heart attacks and strokes by lowering cholesterol and reducing the risk of blood clotting.
The Japanese eat three times as much fish as Americans: 61.4 kilos per person between 2005 and 2007, compared with 24.2 kg in the U.S. They eat fish every day, and are particularly fond of fatty fish such as salmon and herring.
Fatty fish is an excellent source of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids which have been found to protect against artherosclerosis by preventing plaque buildup in the arteries.
The vitamins, minerals and the fiber provided by vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. While many North Americans find it difficult to eat the four to ten daily servings of vegetables recommended by nutritionists, the Japanese eat a variety of vegetables with every meal, and these are all fresh rather than canned or frozen. In addition, the cooking methods they use – steaming, stir-frying, or simmering in broth – do not destroy their valuable nutrients.
The Japanese eat a wide variety of vegetables, some of which, such as sato-imo, bitter melon, and shitake mushrooms, are believed to have particular health benefits.
Seaweed is an excellent source of minerals, including iron, calcium, zinc and selenium, as well as iodine and vitamin B12.
Several types of seaweed are used in Japanese cuisine, including nori for sushi wrappers, wakame which is used in miso soup, and konbu, a kelp used to make dashi, the basic Japanese soup stock.
Green tea is an integral part of Japanese culture. It is not only offered as a special drink for honored guests at formal tea ceremonies, but is also enjoyed every day with ordinary meals or snacks.
In contrast to black tea, green tea is made from unfermented leaves and as a result contains much higher levels of polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that are believed to combat the aging process and prevent cancer and heart disease. Green tea has been the focus of a great deal of scientific inquiry, and various studies suggest that green tea can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, tooth decay, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and rheumatoid arthritis.
Several foods known to create health problems in Europe and North America are absent in the traditional Japanese diet. Because most of their protein comes from fish and soy, the Japanese eat very little red meat or dairy products, and consequently their intake of saturated fats from animal products is little to none. Also, they use very little refined sugar and tend to avoid rich, fattening desserts.
Many Japanese are abandoning their traditional diet in favor of less healthy and more fattening foreign alternatives, and consuming more sugar, meat and dairy products. Regrettably, their health is likely to suffer as a result.