Director of Nutrition and Dietary Services at Nutrisystem
It seems that on a fairly regular basis another study comes out reporting about the increasing prevalence of obesity in the world. The latest is from The Lancet, published in August, which reports that obesity rates have doubled in the last three decades. The US has the distinction of having the uppermost BMI (Body Mass Index) average of high income countries while Japan has one of the lowest BMI averages, although weight is on the rise there as well with changing eating habits. In addition to a low rate of obesity, people in Japan have the longest life expectancy in the world.
Which makes one wonder…what explains the two extremes, when both countries have populations that are well educated, with a relatively high standard of living? The explanation does not appear to be related to genes, since Japanese who move to the US tend to gain weight. What can we learn from the traditional Japanese way of eating that could help us Americans control our weight and live healthier lives?
I am not an expert on Japanese cuisine, but here are some of my observations:
Beautiful food presentation. Japanese dining rituals emphasize serving food in an attractive, artistic manner. Try to create a festive atmosphere by using your good china and silverware more often. Don’t eat your NS entrée out of the container; instead place it on a pretty plate. Eat meals and snacks sitting down at a table- not in front of the TV or computer and not in the car.
Small portions. Serving sizes in Japanese restaurants or at home tend to be much smaller than in US restaurants or what we have become accustomed to serving ourselves. Studies show that when we are served more, we tend to eat more, regardless of appetite. Serving food in small dishes makes it appear more abundant, so place your entrée on a salad plate rather than a dinner plate and use small bowls for cereal and soup. Narrow, tall glasses look fuller as opposed to squat, wide-rimmed ones when filled with the same amount of liquid.
Low-fat food preparation. With the exception of tempura, you don’t find many deep fried foods on a Japanese menu. Low fat foods are prevalent, such as sushi and sashimi, steamed rice with no butter or oil, broth-based soups rather than cream-based. Steaming or a quick stir-fry as opposed to other cooking techniques helps to preserve nutrients. Select brown rice instead of white for more fiber and reduce soy sauce to control sodium intake.
Less red meat, more soy and vegetables. Soy foods such as tofu and edamame are common protein sources; fish is also plentiful in the Japanese diet. When red meat is served, it’s a modest portion, generally not a huge steak. Select a wide variety of colorful vegetables as the Japanese do, since each distinctive pigment offers a unique health benefit and also creates visual appeal. For beverages, try replacing sodas with green tea; it provides valuable polyphenols and a few studies indicate that it may contribute to fat loss.
Leisurely meals. Traditionally, the Japanese family would dine together for an unhurried dinner, although with longer working hours now, that pattern is changing. Whenever possible, avoid “fast food” meals. A recent study, as reported in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, related a faster speed of eating to higher BMI. So, take small bites and chew foods thoroughly to slow down the time it takes to finish a meal; this will give your brain time to get the message that your stomach is full before you overeat. You might try eating with chopsticks; if you are like me, they will definitely slow your pace.