A traditional Japanese diet is well balanced, containing more fish than red meat, plenty of vegetables, pickled and fermented foods, and small portions of rice. It’s common to include raw fish in dishes. It involves little highly processed food and lower overall sugar intake. Basically, the Japanese diet is low in calories and extremely nutritious, making Japanese nation one of the healthiest and longest living.
In fact, Japanese have long been revered and studied for their long life expectancy, which is higher than almost anywhere else in the world. So you may ask – what should I eat to be as healthy as the Japanese people?
What are the benefits of the traditional Japanese diet?
The traditional Japanese diet is linked to an array of health benefits:
Rich in nutrients and beneficial compounds
The traditional Japanese diet is naturally rich in various minerals and nutrients, including fibre, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium and vitamins A, C, and E (source). Many fish- and seaweed-based dishes included in the Japanese diet provide long-chain omega-3 fats, which promote brain, eye, and heart health (source).
Vegetables contribute to the nutrient density of this diet and are often cooked in dashi, a dried fish and sea vegetable based stock. This reduces their volume and enhances their flavour, making it easier to eat large amounts (source).
The diet also offers good amounts of seaweed and green tea. Both are great sources of antioxidants, which are beneficial compounds that protect your body against cellular damage and disease (Sources: 4, 6, 7).
Improves your digestion
Seaweed, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables dominant in the Japanese diet are naturally rich in fibre, a nutrient that aids your smooth digestion. Insoluble fibre moves food through your gut and adds bulk to stool, reducing your risk of constipation (source). These foods also boast soluble fibre, which feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut and helps reduce the space available for harmful bacteria to multiply. (Sources: 10, 11, 12). When gut bacteria feed on soluble fibre, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which may reduce inflammation and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis (Sources: 9, 13, 14).
The pickled and fermented fruits and vegetables commonly eaten on this diet are a great source of probiotics. These beneficial bacteria promote gut health and reduce digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhoea. (Sources: 15, 16, 17)
Helps to maintain a healthy weight
The traditional Japanese diet is rich in vegetables and is usually served in small portion sizes. Alternating between dishes and tastes, as is common during traditional Japanese meals, may reduce the total amount of food eaten per meal (Sources: 26).
This diet is naturally low in added sugar and fat resulting in a low calorie count (Sources: 18). In addition, Japanese culture encourages eating in moderation. A Confucian teaching called Hara hachi bun me instructs people to eat until they are 80 percent full, as the Japanese proverb goes: “eight parts of a full stomach sustain the man; the other two sustain the doctor”. This practice deters overeating and may contribute to the calorie deficit needed to lose weight (Sources: 19, 20, 21, 22).
Research shows that the fibre-rich vegetables, soy foods, legumes and soups typical of the traditional Japanese diet may help reduce appetite and boost fullness, thus promoting weight control (Sources: 23, 24, 25).
May protect against chronic diseases
The Japanese also have the lowest rates of obesity amongst both men and women as well as long life expectancy. The traditional Japanese diet may safeguard against conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
A6-week study in 33 men following the traditional Japanese diet, 91% experienced significant reductions in risk factors for type 2 diabetes, including excess weight and high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels (Sources: 32, 33).
The Japanese diet is naturally rich in soy, vegetables, fish, seaweed, green tea, fruits but low in added sugar, fat, and animal protein — all factors believed to promote a healthy heart. (Sources: 27, 28, 29, 30, 31).
In fact, Japanese people’s risk of heart disease remains unexpectedly low despite their high salt intake, which typically raises heart disease risk (Sources: 28). A study by the British Medical Journal found that people following Japanese dietary guidelines – a diet high in grains and vegetables, with moderate amounts of animal products and soy but minimal dairy and fruit – had a reduced risk of dying early from heart disease or stroke. A diet traditionally high in soy and fish seems to play a significant role in reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Powdered green tea is called matcha.
May help you live longer
Japan has one of the world’s highest life expectancies, which many experts attribute to the traditional Japanese diet (Sources: 38, 39, 40, 41). Okinawa, in southernmost Japan, has the highest number of centenarians in the world as well as the lowest risk of age-related diseases (for example diabetes, cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s). Okinawa is considered a Blue Zone, which is a region with extremely high longevity. What’s interesting is that the Okinawa diet focuses heavily on sweet potatoes and features less rice and fish than the traditional Japanese diet. Phytonutrients such as antioxidants and flavonoids found in different coloured vegetables play an important role in this. This diet also includes phytoestrogens, or plant-based oestrogens, that may help protect against hormone-dependent cancers, such as breast cancer.
In a 15-year study in over 75,000 Japanese people, those who closely followed the traditional Japanese diet experienced up to a 15% lower risk of premature death compared with those eating a Westernized diet (Sources: 3).
The main dishes of the Japanese diet
In contrary to what mass media may have us believe, a traditional Japanese diet isn’t that dissimilar to a traditional Chinese diet, with rice, cooked and pickled vegetables, fish and meat being staple choices. However, because Japan is actually a group of islands (all 6,582 of them), its residents consume a lot more fish compared to other Asian countries. They also eat raw fish in sushi and sashimi, plus a lot of fermented, pickled and smoked foods.
Soya beans, usually in the form of tofu or fresh edamame, are another key part of the Japanese diet, along with other beans such as aduki. Increasingly, fermented foods are being shown to support a healthy digestive system. Fermented soy bean products such as miso and natto are staples of the Japanese diet. Natto is traditionally consumed at breakfast and has a probiotic traits.
The Japanese also consume a wide variety of land and sea vegetables such as seaweed, which is packed full of health-boosting minerals, and may help to reduce blood pressure. Fruit is often consumed with breakfast or as a dessert, especially Fuji apples, tangerines and persimmons.
Alongside their diet, the Japanese are big fans of green tea – in particular matcha tea, which is fast gaining popularity in the UK. Matcha, a stone-ground powdered green tea, is most valued for its high antioxidant compounds known as catechins, which have been linked to fighting cancer, viruses and heart disease.
Eat more often, in smaller portions
Another secret to why Japanese diet is so beneficial and great to follow is that it stimulates all the senses. The way the Japanese serve their food is also key. Rather than having one large plate, locals often eat from a small bowl and several different dishes, usually a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso, some fish or meat and then two or three vegetables dishes, often served communally and eaten in rotation. The Japanese are also strong believers in ‘flexible restraint’ when it comes to treats and snacks, enjoying them from time to time but in smaller portions.
How do you like Japanese diet? Is there something you can’t live without but it’s not encouraged in a typical Japanese diet? Share your thoughts in the comments.