What's so healthy about Japanese food?


A lot of people who come to this site or JustBento are here because they think Japanese cooking is very healthy. By and large it is, but, like any cuisine it's not 100% healthy by any means. I've been thinking about what parts of Japanese cuisine are indeed healthy, and what aren't, following up on my previous posts about sushi here and here. Here's what I have come up with.

The bad news first: what's not that healthy about Japanese food

  • The biggest health issue with Japanese cuisine may be that it's centered around refined carbohydates, in the form of white rice, noodles made white flour, and bread - most of the bread consumed in Japan is as white as snow. Some people think soba noodles are healthier than other types of noodles, and while buckwheat (soba) may have some beneficial qualities, most of the soba you can get, especially the dried kind, contains a lot of white wheat flour (buckwheat on its own is pretty hard to form into thin noodles).
  • Japanese cuisine is quite high in salt. Condiments like soy sauce are quite salty of course, but there are lots of salt-preserved foods like umeboshi, pickled, salt-cured vegetables and fish. Salt was very important as a preservative before the widespread adoption of canning and refrigeration, as were drying/dehydrating, smoking and sugar. Until fairly recently the leading cause of death in Japan was by diseases related to high blood pressure, such as stroke. (Both my maternal grandparents died of stroke-related complications.) If you don't have blood pressure problems you don't have to worry too much about salt probably, but if you do it is an issue.
  • Modern Japanese cuisine, from the Meiji period on, has quite a lot of battered, breaded and deep fried foods. Tempura has been around for a while, and it's been joined by things like tonkatsu, ebifurai (breaded deep fried shrimp), korokke (Japanese croquettes), menchikatsu and more.
  • Sugar is used quite a lot in savory dishes. Mostly it's used in tiny amounts, but some dishes are quite sugary even if they are savory. (One reason for could be that traditionally, Japanese meals did not have a dessert course; sweet things were eaten as in-between meal snacks.) Although a spoonful at a time of budo mame will not hurt me too much, I do have to limit my intake of it severely.
  • Some of the most popular Japanese dishes around the world are sadly not that healthy. Besides the issues with sushi, ramen for example is wheat noodles in a fairly fatty (but oh so tasty) broth; tonkatsu is, as mentioned above, breaded and deep-fried; and Japanese curry is basically a hearty European style stew served over a big mound of white rice.

The slightly dubious news: things that may not be as healthy as claimed

Two foods that are integral part of Japanese cooking are tofu and green tea. Tofu is a great source of vegetable based protein, that has been eaten for hundreds if not thousands of years in East Asian countries. However, when people take the idea behind tofu and consume massive amounts of it, in the form of soy protein isolate and so on, it may or may not cause some problems. I do feel there's quite a lot of bad science around this issue, too. Western anti-soy/tofu advocates tend to underreport the typical amounts of tofu that Japanese or Chinese people traditionally eat (it's not that uncommon to eat a whole block of it at a meal by yourself for example), but it's really hard to over-eat plain tofu the way you can over-dose perhaps on protein shakes and the like.

Green tea has also been consumed in East Asia for quite a long time. Green tea has been given all kinds of amazing health benefits - mainly in the West. In the countries where drinking green tea is part of the culture, people don't really think about the health benefits; they just drink it because it's enjoyable. I'm always rather suspicious about things that are purported to have amazing health benefits, because it seems to me that the more exotic and foreign or just plain odd something is, the most miraculous it's supposed to be. This applies to almost any place. For instance, in Japan green tea it too common to be miraculous, but pu-erh tea is supposed to lower your cholesterol, make you lose weight, and grow hair on your head. (I just made the last part up, but you get the point.) Green tea probably does have some health benefits, but drinking green tea while maintaining an otherwise unhealthy lifestyle is not going to make you healthy. And again, there's really no telling what will happen to your body if you take massive amounts of any food, no matter how 'natural' it is.

The good news: The healthy parts of Japanese cuisine

I'll get to what I think is the healthiest aspect of Japanese cuisine in a minute, but to go over some individual things:

  • The wide variety of vegetables and legumes (beans) consumed is a good thing. The Japanese diet includes quite a few land and sea vegetables (seaweed). Not that many cuisines are into sea vegetables, but they are very low in calories, pretty high in fiber and packed with minerals. Beans are a big part of Japanese cooking too.
  • Seafood is mostly good too. Fish is lower in calories generally speaking than meat, and the fats it contains are of the 'good' kind. (The biggest things we have to be concerned about regarding fish consumption these days are the near-extinction of some species, and the amount of mercury.)
  • Fermented products add various kinds of beneficial flora to our digestive systems, which are critical to their er, smooth functioning. Miso is the best known fermented food in Japan, but there are also a wide variety of fermented preserved foods, as well as rice malt or koji, both sweet and salty. Salt-cured rice malt or shio-kōji has become very popular in Japan in recent years, and I see it slowly making its way onto the shelves of Japanese grocery stores in other countries too. I hope it becomes as commonly available as miso because it's really versatile. People have been using sakekasu or sake lees in cooking for a long time too. I don't count the use of sake and mirin, two alcoholic products, as part of the 'healthy fermented foods' mix, but the lees or mash left over after sake production are pretty low in alcohol and full of that beneficial flora. (Soy sauce is too salty to be taken in amounts big enough to take advantage of its fermented nature.)
  • Japanese cuisine also uses quite a few things that are naturally high in fiber and low in calories. Shirataki noodles is the best known of these: it seems to be trendy all around the world, or at least in North America and Europe, as a 'guilt-free' alternative to pasta. There are other foods like that too, such as konnyaku which is made from the same substance as shirataki. I described some of these foods in a mini-series a while back: seaweed or sea vegetables, dried vegetables, and of course konnyaku and shirataki.

The healthiest aspects of Japanese food culture

The best, healthiest parts of Japanese cuisine have little to do with individual food items. It has to do with the way food is consumed: in moderation, and with lots of variety. During a typical day, a Japanese person consumes about 15 to 20 types of food if not more; nutritionists in Japan urge everyone to eat at least 30 different types of food a day. This may seem impossibly daunting if you come from a meat-and-two-veg food culture, but it's not a big stretch in Japanese food culture. If you eat a lot of different foods, you are much more inclined to eat a healthy balanced diet. Of course you can cheat and choose 30 types of snack foods and candies, but that would be silly. As I explained during the Japanese Cooking 101 course, a typical Japanese meal has '1 soup, 3 dishes" besides the main carbohydrate. Even if you don't cook Japanese style a lot, trying to add more variety to your meals may make your everyday meals just a bit healthier.

And the other part of Japanese cuisine, or Japanese food culture, that makes it relatively healthy is small portions and moderation. If you go to Japan you will see that the streets of its cities, especially Tokyo, are just filled with restaurants and various food related establishments. People enjoy a huge variety of cuisines and foods, some of them not at all inherently 'healthy'. French pastries for example are tremendously popular, despite reports to the contrary. All kinds of junk food abound in stores. Yet, most Japanese people manage to stay pretty slim. It's all about portion size and moderation. You can eat your cake and your ramen and your tonkatsu, as long as you don't eat it all the time or in huge portions and you balance it out with other foods. It's not a sexy quick-fix kind of characteristic that grabs headlines. But I'm convinced it's the most important one.

Bonus: Maki's basic rules for healthy eating

This is not nearly as concise as Michael Pollan's rule of "eat food, not too much, mostly plants", and I sort of disagree with him on some things...but anyway here's a list I came up with yesterday when answering this question on Quora.

  • eat a lot of vegetables
  • a decent amount of fruit
  • a moderate amount of protein and carbohydrates
  • monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats over saturated or trans fats
  • don't forget fiber
  • as well as getting some beneficial flora into your system via fermented foods
  • watch out for sugar and refined carbohydrate overload (critical if you're a diabetic; still important if you don't)
  • some people need to watch their salt intake
  • variety is good
  • And above all, MODERATION.

I admit I don't follow these rules all the time myself! But, I aspire to. ^_^;

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