5 Secrets to Staying Trim from the One of the World's Healthiest Countries

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Japan has one of the lowest rates of obesity in the world--less than 5 percent, compared to nearly 35 percent for the United States. How do the Japanese stay so slim? Journalist Alice Gordenker (USAGITWO) blogs in from Tokyo to share Japanese diet and health secrets Ė ones you too can use!

Japanese Secret #1: Eat 30 Different Foods Every Day

In Japan, the standard nutritional advice is to eat 30 different foods every day. The idea is that building a diet of so many different foods pretty much guarantees that youíll get a balanced diet and all the nutrients you need.

For someone building a meal the Japanese way, with many dishes in tiny portions, this is an achievable goal. A typical Japanese dinner at home might be a small serving of protein like teriyaki chicken or grilled fish, two or three vegetable-based mini-entrťes, salty pickles made from seasonal vegetables, a bowl of rice and miso soup with two or three goodies like little cubes of tofu, a clam or two, chopped scallions etc.

On a standard Western diet, however, itís tough to clock in 30 foods a day. Letís see: Muffin for breakfast, ham-and-cheese sandwich with lettuce and tomato for lunch; steak, potatoes and broccoli for dinner--why, thatís only 9 items! To build your way to 30, try adding two mini-sides of vegetables or fruit with every meal, even breakfast! Thereís no reason you canít add a little salad to your morning. Japanese people do, all the time.

Japanese Secret #2: Make it Look Good

Food that looks good is more satisfying, and the Japanese have famously made an art out of food presentation. This is one reason Japanese are less likely to overeat. In Japan, the emphasis is never on filling a plate. In fact, itís considered better to leave some empty space so the design of the plate can complement the food and make it look better. Itís also considered important to arrange food so itís not all flat on the plate. That gives a sense of depth and makes the food look more appealing. Having a range of colors is vital, too, both in the dishes and in the food.

You donít have to hire a Japanese consultant to plate every meal you cook, but try taking more care in presentation and see if you feel more satisfied with less food. Instead of slapping the whole slab of swordfish flat on your plate, try cutting it into two or three pieces and placing them so they overlap in a pleasing pattern. Add color with a cherry tomato and sautťed green and yellow peppers. And always take a minute before you start to feast only with your eyes.

Japanese Secret #3: Chew Every Bite Well

I know, I know--your grandmother used to say the same thing. But this little piece of wisdom turns up all the time in diet tips in Japan. The explanation is that taking the time to really chew not only slows you down so you eat less, but also that the physical act of moving your jaw sends signals to the brain so you feel satisfied faster. (As an aside, itís also a common belief in Japan that chewing makes kids smarter, so you have to give kids foods that require some effort to chew.)

Japanese Secret #4: Drink Green Tea

Scientists are still unraveling the many ways in which green tea is good for your health. Thereís mounting evidence that green tea can do everything from warding off Alzheimerís to protecting you from cancer. In Japan, itís not unusual for people to drink five or six cups of green tea a day. Is there a connection between all that tea drinking and low rates of obesity? Probably. Compounds in green tea have been shown to reduce cholesterol and speed up the metabolism of fat.

I drink several cups of green tea every day. To honest, I donít think too much about the science and the health claims. In terms of weight loss, I just apply common sense: green tea has no calories and no fat. So of course itís a better choice than sugary sodas and calorie-packed coffee drinks. And I really enjoy it.

Japanese Secret #5: Walk 10,000 Steps Every Day

Sound like a lot? It is--at my stride, 10,000 steps works out to 7.8 kilometers or a little under 5 miles. If you canít imagine fitting a 5-mile walk into your busy day, donít worry. Your steps count even when youíre walking down the hall to a co-workerís office or pushing the cart at the supermarket.

Here in Japan, people get a fair amount of activity in their daily lives. Levels of car ownership are lower than in other developed countries, and people are more likely to walk, bike or take public transportation. Still, it takes some consciousness to hit 10,000 steps, which is why pedometers are so popular here. There is even a step-counting feature in many mobile phones.

If you want to give this a try, use a pedometer or step-counter to see how much youíre already moving. Then increase your count little by little, with simple steps like getting off the bus a stop earlier or adding a ten-minute walk in the evening.

Did you know that you can add a step-tracker to your My Fitness page? And the default setting is 10,000 steps!

Thanks in part to good habits picked up in Japan, Alice Gordenker (USAGITWO) maintained a healthy body weight for her first 10 years in the country. But when a gradual gain suggested the onset of Dreaded Middle-Age Spread, Alice took action by joining SparkPeople. She started with the Nutrition Tracker to get a reality check on portion size and overall food intake, and was pleasantly surprised to find lots of Japanese foods already entered in the database by other members. Sheís now reached her goal but still logs in daily for motivation and to use the Fitness Tracker. The Map My Route feature works even in Tokyo! Check out her columns in The Japan Times.

Which of these tips is the most helpful to you? Do you eat Japanese foods at home?

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I really enjoyed this article. As an American mom living the life of a Japanese housewife in southern Japan, I can attest that it is very time-consuming providing 12 meals a day from scratch (4 people x 3 meals). Since I use Japanese ingredients and copy recipes from dishes I eat at the local elementary school, it's not that hard to come up with 30 different ingredients a day. Japanese cuisine really does make use of bits and pieces of the most unlikely plant sources like konnyaku. I nearly bust a gut when I saw konnyaku advertised in a pricey nutritional supplement store in the USA as the secret ingredient of why Japanese are so thin with a big fat price tag on it. What a hoot! Report
Another helpful Japanese tip I learned from a friend's bento-making web site ( www.lunchinabox.com ) is the "Five Color Rule" -- a meal should have five different natural colors in it. That is, red from apples or pomegranate juice counts but red food coloring doesn't. It's a great shortcut to getting a good balance.

For those who want to try Japanese recipes, she does a combination of Japanese and Western lunches. Her specialty is "speed bento," and she has a ton of tricks for setting yourself up to pack lunches and get out the door in under 15 minutes. She started focusing on meals for her husband and toddler, and she has a lot of info on how to scale the meals for calorie count. Report
I had the good fortune to travel to Japan 6 years ago with my daughter. We loved it there and the food was wonderful. I did notice, however, that there were a lot of overweight teens which surprised me until I saw that they have McDonald's and the teens are eating there! That was sad. Report
This is great info. I plan to try adding more, smal variety to each meal. Thanks. Report
No. I just buy it at the restaurant. Report
I absolutely love Japanese food and the culture. We eat Japanese quite often. Now that we've moved to Maryland though its so darn difficult to find anywhere. Report
I love hearing about other cultures and the things that they do to stay healthy. Americans have gotten so used to fast food with all of the additives. I used to love fast food before it had so many additives as it used to taste better. Now it taste so bland that it makes it hard to eat at a fast food restaurant. I think if we go back to the basics, we would eat much healthier and the fresher the better. I remember as a little child going in to the back yard garden and eating peas from the pods, fresh carrots, turnips, radish, etc. My whole family was thin in those days and now we all live in a city with no garden and are heavier....no wonder! I am going to do my best to try to get back to the basics and enjoy them again....as I do love fresh veggies and fruit (uncooked with no preservatives or additives). I like the green tea idea as well....so I should try to drink more of the green tea as well. 30 different foods a day is a lot, but I do like the idea of getting a larger variety of foods into my diet which would make it much more interesting & tasty! Thanks all for sharing! Report
don't know if I could eat 30 different foods a day but I will honestly try all the other suggestions - especially green tea and 10,000 steps a day! Report
Great article because it makes you take a look at your current habits. I like variety in my meals but have not counted how many different foods a day, sure it isn't 30 different foods so I will keep working on that. I think looking at any culture that places a high value on food quality versus quantity will help us to learn how to change our food habits. I have always created eye pleasing plate presentations for my food (even when I lived alone or in my lunch box) ever since I was an exchange student in France. It doesn't take much to do and I feel it makes my meal special which then makes me feel special, etc. Have switched to smaller sized plates and bowls so leaving space on the plate to see the design is a bit tougher but great idea for controlling portion size without measuring! Yes, we all need to move more in our car centric culture in America. Sadly, I am seeing weight gain on the raise in other nations were public transportation is declining and driving is on the raise (thanks to shops moving to the perimeter of cities and offering easy parking compared to town centres) which leads one to believe there is a corrolation. Pedometer is a great way to see how sedentary we really are and challenges us to move more.
I know Sparkpeople has members from many other countries, would love to hear from them about some of their cooking or eating habits. Report
I like the article, thanks for sharing! I don't eat Japanese food but I am inspired to do so now:) Report
I almost think that the 30 food idea is a little overkill. For me, if there are too many flavors and too much variety, I tend to OVER eat. Maybe it's because I'm not satisfied by one tiny bite of a particular food. I guess the fact that many of the 30 foods are vegetables makes it healthier than the typical American diet, where the extras you would add would be bread, cheese, etc.
I just think that that variety is easier in the Japanese diet. I'm thinking about the vegetarian sushi I make, which has seaweed /rice /egg/ asparagus /carrots /cucumbers/ avocado/ broccoli--8 things in one tiny roll. Add pickled ginger & wasabi, and you have 10 of your 30 items right there. :) Maybe by having mixed vegetables or salads we could duplicate that variety, but some very healthy meals are also very simple--lean protein, two vegetables, complex carb. . . Report
Secret #5 works for me. I get 10,000 steps in everyday. I want to work on secret #4 drinking green tea. I love tea. Report
I gotta move more! WE CAN DO IT! Report

gonna give a try with the green tea.. Report
I'm inspired to get a pedometer. Report
I also have no problem with the green tea part- I drink genmaicha green tea- it has a lovely sesame like aroma and taste (although it is made with toasted brown rice). I put it in a thermos (that holds about 3 cups) that I got as a gift , and keep it on my desk at work and sip it throughout the afternoon. (In the morning, I am still a coffee drinker!) Report
While I do believe that the average Japanese citizen IS in better health than the average American, there is a catch 22. Yes, the Japanese do eat more veggies. They do drink more green tea. BUT, the women go on gimic diets just like here !! Case in point, Japan recently went through a "banana diet" craze. Eat bananas all day, and lose weight. They also drink weight loss teas and try fitness gimics too.

I'm not trying to be critical, I do think we can learn a lot from Eastern cultures. But, folks have to understand that some of the things they do might not be that healthy. They're just like us in many ways i.e. looking for the quick fix.

This all seems way too complicate and time consuming. How about this eat more fresh fruits and vegetables, cut out processed foods, do a cardio of your choice (30 mins a day), and add strength training like 2 or 3 times a week!
I live in Japan, and although I agree that the Japanese have a healthier lifestyle than many people back home in the US, I feel that there are a lot of unhealthy things about this country as well. For one- the 30 things to eat a day? Great idea, but it puts a lot of pressure on Japanese women to create these meals. I have yet to meet a Japanese man that helps at all with the meal preparation and many of my married female acquaintances have to leave restaurants when were are together to go home, cook for their husbands, run the bath and then come back. They aren't even allowed to take a day off. They also prepare lunches and breakfasts, and often still go to work. This is an unhealthy living in my opinion and often leads to unhealthy marriages.

Second - the drinking tea aspect. Sure we drink a lot of tea here. There's tea for breakfast, lunch, tea break, dinner, after drinking etc. But tea is actually dehydrates you, and everyone looks at me strangely when I opt for just plain water, there is very little water drinking here in the daily life style. The most odd instance I've come across was the school nurse announcing to the teachers at the morning meeting to make sure students drank tea and not water in summer to stay hydrated ?!?! very odd to me.

Just some food for thought Report
Wow, 30 foods a day, I need to work on that one. I am tracking my steps everyday, some days are good and others it seems like I don't move at all. I seem to do better on my days off of work. Great blog, thanks for sharing! Report
I don't do most of these, but I definitely eat multiple small foods for each meal. Instead of piling everything into one bowl (like with oatmeal) I eat each thing I'm having separately. It takes longer to eat that way, and it makes me feel like I am having a HUGE feast with a lot less food. Report
thanks for this article, its really easy to read informative. i drink a cup of green tea everyday, its an aquired taste but i'm used to it now. i also try to chew slowly since i read somewhere that the French do that a lot. 30 different foods? wow! i need to work on that Report
Great info I love green tea. I need to improve on all matters. Report
A very informative article, and I enjoyed reading it. I don't think I can manage that many different foods a day. I'm a compulsive eater right now and I shudder to think about that variety in my small refrigerator. Maybe I could make it if I streched it out for three days. ;o) This is a winking clown smile see the nose. Report
I came very close to 30 today - and that was before I read this article. I often have 10 to 15 vegetables and fruits a day. Report
Interesting article...Just for fun, I tried eating 30 foods today. It wouldn't have been easy without 17 kinds of salad greens in my garden, but I did it! Report
Another the the Japanese do is, eat with chop sticks. They help you to eat slower, because they are more difficult to use than a fork or a spoon. Report
I have read that black tea has almost as much of the good stuff as the green. I prefer it to the green, it has more flavor Report
i wish i could drink green tea,it makes me feel like i'm a drug and quite sick to my tummy. Anyone else? Report
Very interesting. However, while Japan may have a low rate of obesity, I am not sure it is one of the "healthiest countries" overall. Don't they suffer from stress-related health problems more than Americans and others? Report
I would have to say the Green Tea part is the best info for me. Thanks. Report
we have a japanese resteraunt here in Culpeper Va. called osaka
it also has sushi and a habachi grill. but as far as green tea gose
no thank you i don't want caffine or taning acid in my stomach.
but i could do smaller meals. Report
Very interesting. I am going to try making the plate look more gourmet and flattering. And I love green tea. I have been drinking a brand with mint in it. Fresh breath and no cals - love it. Report
I love the Japanese culture so I try to do these things more out of foundness than to keep weight down. I adore green tea and drink it pretty regularly, though I'm considering trying to get in five glasses a day to see if it makes any significant changes. With my food I've started adding in veggies as a kind of treat with each meal, baby carrots and brocholi are my favorite. Report
good ideas and inspiration. I read an article in our local newspaper last year about creating "bento box" lunches using both American and Asian style foods, for kids and adults! There is a local Japanese market that sells bento supplies. I need to check it out more. Report
This was an interesting article and incorporates much of what Spark teaches. I have heard an interesting article on TV recently. It seems that eating seaweed (Kelp) helps people to loose weight. I believe that the Japanese people do eat a lot of seaweed. I wonder if that may play a role as well. Report
Great article. I can easily incorporate some of these ideas into my spark meal planning. Report
Good article! It has some excellent tips. Out of curiosity, I counted my food from yesterday, I came up with 27 different foods! Can't promise every day will be like that, but it a great goal to shoot for 30! Report
I love green tea and now that I know it helps with other things I am going to drink more of it. This was a great article. Report
Great advice. I read the 30+ food thing about 5 years ago in a study about the healthy, long-lived people of Okinawa and have been trying to work the 30 different foods a day into my diet ever since and haven't succeeded yet--it's harder than it sounds to work it into the American lifestyle. Another thing mentioned in that article that isn't mentioned here is that since their diet is heavy into vegetables they can eat a lot if food but their calorie intake is amazingly low. They also have a work ethic that involves a lot of physical labor outdoors doing gardening--right, that's where all those vegetables come from. Maybe part of the health benefits of the Okinawan lifestyle comes not only from their different diet but also from being outdoors and growing their own--organic and fresh off the vine. Report
Being of Asian descent, yes, I cook and eat Japanese food frequently. The best tip I liked was #1 - eat 30 different foods every day. I don't usually cook a lot of dishes at one meal, so I never thought of that. But I do know when we dine out, there is usually a lot of variety to the meal that is served. Japanese cuisine is my #1 favorite of all becos of the variety. Report
Never fill the plate. That's one resonated with me. I'll add more variety as well. Thanks, Great Article. Report
This was a great blog. This will be put into my favourites for sure. I love Japanese especially the green tea and edemame beans.

Thank you !!!!! Report
Absolutely right! On a holiday to Japan, I still lost weight, even though my perception was that I was eating a lot of food. re: stomach cancer - this is thought to be because we eat alot of pickles (not so good for you). If miso tastes too salty, you are using too much. In a typical bowl of miso soup, one should use only 1/2 tsp and the broth is a fish broth. The good thing about the diet as many point out is that beef is rare - a delicacy! The typical diet is vegetarian or pescatarian(seafood, no land animals). That means no hormones from your food, larger portions for the same amount of calories and fat.

The time involved in making so many dishes is an issue - in Japan you can get a breakfast for $5 that had everything in the top picture. It was filling. If I could get my husband to buy in, I would eat that way every day! Report
Interesting tips. My favorite one is the one about eating 30 foods per day. Looking at the picture, first thing I thought was I feel sorry for the person who does the dishes. If 90% of those items were good choices (or even 75%), you'd be losing weight in no time most likely. Report
Do I eat Japanese foods at home? Can you say "edamame"? Yum! And sushi... but I have to go out to a Japanese restaurant to get my favorite kind (tako -- i.e., octopus -- sushi). My daughter loves edamame, too -- and I'm ecstatic that she chooses to eat it over sugar-laden snack options. Report
Interesting. Report
Very original and well written. I will definitely try some of these things. Report
Good suggestions - thanks! Report
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