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. ^_^;

Filed under:  essays japanese health and weight loss japanese culture thinking

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Is dieting A Thing in Japan the way it is in the US?

It seems to me that some of the most unhealthy eating habits I observe are people who are "dieting"!

Disclaimer: This is from my personal experience and probably not representative of trends at large.

When I was doing a study abroad in Japan my older host sister was on some diet or another every other day it seemed. The way she went about it was totally confusing to me and not like any diet structure I've ever seen in the US. Her diets only seemed to last a few days. One day she'd pass up on a small slice of cake, the next day it was alright. The strangest thing was this banana "tea" mixture she left to ferment on the counter for a week. It seemed that drinking a small glass of that once or twice a day was all that that particular diet consisted of. It seemed like all of the college age women were obsessed with thinness. It also seemed like their post-college job prospects depended on it.

Yes, dieting is a big thing in Japan, and there are and have been some really weird ones over the years. But most slim and fit people I know don't really diet...as is the case everywhere. (Disclaimer: I've done some odd and frankly unhealthy dieting myself over the years...I know that feeling of desperation that leads someone that way since I've been there. ^_^;)

Thank you, Maki - this is excellent. Something to add might be: watch those beverages. I just returned to the US after another visit to Japan, and this time I was struck by the size of beverage servings. Teas, soda, and beer are served in pretty small glasses, at least by US standards. A small-size ice coffee with cream and sugar (or "gum syrup") in Japan is about the same size as a kid's drink with a McDonald's Happy Meal here. Plus, it's just easier in Japan to get unsweetened cold teas (green, oolong, or barley mugicha), especially during summer.

Even some Japanese sweets aren't as horrible, calorie- or carb-wise, as their American counterparts, as long as you stick to serving sizes and read the labels.

One serving of Pocky is not all that tiny, but it contains 17g of carbs, including 9g of sugar. I don't remember what the calorie count is, but compared to American sweets in general, it's laughably small*.

American chocolate cookies tend to have 140-200 calories, 20g or more of sugar, and 35g or more of carbs--in just 2 cookies. Our candy bars are even worse--30+g of sugar in ONE candy bar serving isn't uncommon, and they tend to have a whopping 300 calories or more per bar.

So satisfying a chocolate-and-crunch craving can be just a wee bit less unhealthy if you go with Pocky instead of a Snickers.

* I don't count "diet" snacks here, because they tend to have artificial sweeteners, which I can't have, and which aren't all that good for you in the first place. Also, they're another case of "watch those labels"--"low in fat" doesn't necessarily mean low in calories or sugars!

This is a wonderfully organized and balanced perspective, and so informative! Thank you for writing this.

As a big fan of (both cooking and eating) Japanese food, I often get questions like "isn't Japanese food (all) healthy?" and "do Japanese people eat much bread?" and then I try to answer those questions as best I can... but from now on, I can just send them this! ^_^

(Off to share it on my blog's Facebook page, too...)

I asked a penpal of mine awhile back about what they ate for breakfast and their answer was "bread and coffee". Haha, and a lot of their photos that they posted in terms of food, looked more like they were in Europe somewhere, opposed to being in Japan because of all the pastries, pasta and generally 'not traditional' foods they consumed on the daily.

When I was staying in a guest house in Japan for 3 months, most Japanese people there seemed to be eating toast for breakfast. When I asked them about it, they said that it's mainly their moms/ grandmothers have the traditional breakfast everyday. The main reason was that its time-consuming as opposed to a quick toast.

Bravo! You hit on everything: the good, the bad, and the portion control.

Especially here in the States, we take something not-so-healthy, like tempura, and supersize it. A couple ebi would be an indulgence, but a towering pile of them is gluttonous!

It would be one thing to have sushi as a special treat (refined carbs, sugar, salt), but it's quite another thing to have a huge American roll covered in mayo or stuffed with cream cheese.

I'm a fat American that struggles with portion control, but I've actually lost 11 lbs (and counting!) by just thinking a little more Japanese. Smaller portions of a huge variety of food, emphasis on fiber and veggies and lean protein, and never denying myself what I crave. A teenie wagashi is better than trying to resist and then binging on them! I've found that this strategy is a lot more realistic than a fad diet.

When I first started reading this, my immediate thought was "It's because veggies are used a lot more!" I was thinking back to when I was making bento boxes for the girls and how I was somewhat forced to pick multiple 'dishes'/foods for each box....which meant I was way more likely to fit in more veggies than I might've otherwise.

Once I got to the end, though, I think the even bigger one really is portion control. Even the unhealthy foods aren't nearly as bad when they're contained in set amounts.

Ah, rice and noodles. I can't seem to stop eating them.

It's strange though. The prettier and cuter the food looks, the less I feel I need to eat. I guess I've somehow consumed with my eyes. In some odd way, I think the appearance of a well plated Japanese meal helps me eat less.

Food is one aspect and moderation is KEY. If you cannot stop eating rice and noodles, how about learning to exercise, too? It is not always about food. Eating is important, but so is taking the time to burn some calories. And I am not talking about just walking.

I think that part of it is cultural, also. I'm not thin, due to a thyroid issue, but I do have a small appetite. But since I've moved to the Mainland, people simply cannot leave it alone! Whenever I eat around others, I'm hounded to eat more.

It never happened in Hawaii, around my Asian or haole friends. Sometimes around people visiting from the Mainland, but they were quickly told that they were being rude! Visitors from Japan? Never!

Maybe if people weren't always urging each other on, portion sizes wouldn't have gotten so large?

Lorelai, I think you've hit one of my main issues with sharing meals with people who are used to eating till they burst. They will instantly think you're on a diet and point it out if you stop eating when you feel you've had enough. Not when you're super full but when you reach that point where you think, "okay, I'm good, I don't need any more. I could eat more, yes, but it would just be for taste, not because I'm hungry".

I'm really fortunate most of my acquaintences are the same but my family will, occasionally, look at me sceptically and ask if I'm really not having any more (and I'm NOT eating tiny portions).

I'm not dieting but I watch what I eat because I, too, have a thyroid problem (hypothyroidism, runs severely in the family). But since I'm slim, people don't believe me and tend to think I eat less due to appearances and because I'm vain. Chotto mendokusaidesu >_<

Oh, the portion sizes!

When I was a tiny tot, the super-size souvenir beverage cup my mom got from a theme park was only 22 oz. Nowadays, it tends to be either a 32-oz mug, or one of those horrible "yard of soda/beer" cups (which are a nightmare for both portion control AND finding cabinet space).

People joke with me about my aluminum water bottles--"is that your whiskey, for when the students drive you nuts?"--but when the alternatives in so many stores are limited to sodas (which I don't like) or horribly over-sweetened teas*, all in 20-oz. bottles (2.5 servings--that's way more than you need at once!), my water bottle is a badge of pride.

* Fast-food unsweetened tea isn't much better, since it's not nearly as popular in my area as (really, really) sweet tea. This means that the unsweetened tea sits in the metal containers for too long and has a very unpleasant aftertaste. Lemons don't always successfully mask it, either.

I actually used to be about 20 pounds overweight. However about a year ago I switch over to being a vegetarian (more or less, I'm not perfect) and started cooking recipes from this website (what I really like about this website is that it helps you eat healthier without having to give up on taste) and now I'm at a health weight. As a side note I also try to do little things such as eating brown rice more instead of white rice (I really only use white rice for sushi and onigiri because it sticks together better), trying to do smaller portions in general, and overall eating less in a day.
Now I'm not saying that cutting meat out of your diet will make you loose weight, on the contrary since most fast food places are meat based, I eat out a lot less and when I do I eat smaller portions (like for instance at mcdonalds I really only like their fries and that's pretty much my meal when I eat there). However I do believe that Americans eat way more meat then is necessary and that portion size is out of control in this country.

Thank you for the informative article, I think it's very honest and very well covered. I just went to New York City for a few days, in which I tried some Japanese foods. One of the place used black rice & multi-grain rice to replace white rice, and vegetables made sauce to replace soy sauce. The other place had vegan soba, and the soup was made from plant sources. Both were interesting.

Good, balanced discussion.

I agree that there's a tendency to ascribe miraculous powers to foods seen as exotic - when we don't avoid them as nearly poisonous! Just look at it as food, people...

And I agree that the variety of food is crucial. American food used to have more variety - served in courses, rather than all at once - but in the last generation or so we've lost the soup and salad and relish tray and (often fruit or milk based) dessert... One meat, one potato, and a commercial cake are not the same.

I am seeing friends who make bentos slide into that variety, as another commentor mentioned doing. I often go a different way - cooking for only two people, I use four or five vegetables in one dish. However we do it, we need the variety.

Sadly much of the popularized (in North America) Japanese food is rated quite high in Weight Watchers points. For reference, imagine you're a typical woman on 26 points a day. Sushi costs about 1 point an oz (30g); cooked rice is 5 points per 1 cup, soba noodles, dried, are 5 points per 2 oz, etc. I'm glad that Maki raised the sodium issue, that's a biggy, too.

Maki's guide is a good one for healthily navigating Japanese food -- what to enjoy as a treat, in moderation, what to go crazy on. Because one thing is for sure, no one wants to give it up, it's so good! lol. Thanks for this Maki! Very helpful!

hi maki et al,

i just went to my favorite, regular japanese rest. and this is what i ordered tonight: hirame no ageoroshi (deep fried flounder/fluke? fillets in a grated radish sauce), hiyashi yaki nasu (cold baked eggplant, in a soy-sauce-dashi broth with lots of ginger, scallions, bonito flakes) and some gohan (white rice). the chef also gave me some spicy cucumbers and the house tsukemono (nappa cabbage, cucumbers and daikon). well, it ended up being too much food with the complimentary dishes, but you know, at the end of the meal, i didn't feel too full because it was mostly vegetables and fish, and not much fat or dairy. it'd been so different if i had a big meal of pasta, cheese and meat. that's what makes japanese food very healthy in my view.

i also tend to find that it depends on the quality of the restaurant. i've had tempura in some not so good places, and i felt so stuffed and fat at the end of the meal, whereas in other places, i don't because the result is a much lighter fry.

what i love about japanese food are the small plates of vegetables that are often part of a meal (nimono, tsukemono, etc.).

Is that picture a nabe for soups and stews? It's unusual with it's spout. It's also beautiful!

What and excellent story. Thank you Just hungry! My view is also that the physical environment in Japan keeps people more active in their everyday lives and this makes people healthier. The Japanese built environment includes more options to walk, take public transport and ride a bike to get to and from where you need to go. According to a BBC documentary I saw a year ago, British people in the 1970s had a higher average calorie diet than they do today (!!) but there was less overweight and obesity problems. The documentary said this was due to people being more active in their everyday lives (commuting and errands) as well as having more physical jobs.


Also, in my experience, japanese people doesn't eat many dairy products...
As Italian, I'm used to eat milk and cheese almost every meal: in Japan I was always hungry, I was never full no matter what I ate!

I loved the meals at our minshukus (hope that's the right word-I mean family owned B&B type) when I visited Japan. BF and dinner. They were truly eye candy. 5 or 6 small dishes, some covered, colorful, different textures, temperatures, even the dishware was varied. It seems when you eat a good variety, you don't eat as much. And no chocolate dessert. This is what your Just Bento book is full of, too. Also I believe the Japanese do not stuff themselves (until they move to the US). Very much a cultural thing. Eating to the point of fullness goes a long way to weight control.

I've been following Maki's blogs for some time, and I really believe that the Japanese mentality regarding eating is overall healthier than the US, where we are always told to clean our plates as kids, and the meat portions seem always to be larger than the vegetable portions (even with the "meat and 3 vegs" here in the South). I think eating your vegetables fresh rather than canned is very important.

In addition to that which has already been said, I think boredom is a real culprit for why we eat too much and/or eat out a lot. I've been making my children (now teenagers) bentos for school for a number of years, and I strive to add the variety seen in bentos to my breakfast and lunch as well. I noticed that when I went back to college and started eating out a lot more I gained more weight, and now that I have graduated and gone back to cooking more, I have lost all the weight I gained and whenever I get bored, I make something new instead of reaching for the telephone to order delivery.

Oh, and Maki, I just want to thank you for the wonderful bento weekly meal planners you have on your bento site, and I would recommend these to you all on this site as well--my teens just love looking on these to see what meals are planned for their school lunch and then dinner for the week (really, it's crazy how excited they get over these lunches!)--and this also makes me less likely to "cheat" on what I eat :D

I've had the soba noodles that are cut with wheat flour and Ireally like them. I saw 100% buckwheat flour soba noodles at Whole Foods the other week and was thinking about buying them (but at $7.99, no go). If you've had these before do they taste the same as the common soba noodles - the ones cut with wheat flour?

I've had the soba noodles that are cut with wheat flour and I really like them. I saw 100% buckwheat flour soba noodles at Whole Foods the other week and was thinking about buying them (but at $7.99, no go). If you've had these before do they taste the same as the common soba noodles - the ones cut with wheat flour?

Your point about moderation is well noted. I was travelling in Japan for 2 weeks and had nothing but ramen, sushi and the typical touristy stuff. My girlfriend and I were thinking "how is any of this healthy?" and you see the locals eating huge bowls of the stuff.

I definitely agree with your view on moderation. I often hear low-carb American practitioners wonder about how carb-based cultures (i.e., other than the Masai and Inuit tribes) thrived for so long without the modern diseases. My personal view has always been moderation and portion control (I know that low carb extremists (meaning not all low crabbers) will not like this) serves a lot of people well. Do low-carbing serve people well. Many, but (like all diets) not all.

I also think that most Japanese (well, at least those I know) seem to have a healthy relationship with food that most Westerners do not have.

Sadly, a lot of younger Japanese are trying to kill themselves, or at least get themselves sick, by adopting the Standard American Diet. How SAD indeed.

When I first started cooking Japanese-style meals, I was shocked at just how much food I was making. It's difficult for someone used to American-sized portions to get used to the seemingly-tiny Japanese sizes...but if you make sure you have the correct variety, the result is a filling, balanced, and proper calorie meal.

The traditional Japanese diet was very low in animal products and didn't actually contain, alot of vegetables or animal foods. Also the eating of blocks of tofu is also a modern thing.

We are talking pre 1950s here, when the Japanese diet was around 10% fat in terms of calories. Along with the Okinawans who consumed mostly satsuma-imo.

Since westernisation of Japan, meat consumption has practically gone from 0% to something that is way too high.

Rice consumption has been decreasing, and is now only around 60kg a year, compared to 200kg + in Vietnam.

I really hope Japan can re-establish its culture and instead of westernising with imported breads, meats, dairy. Japan has great agricultural potential with rice, sweet potatoes, fruit and vegetables.. It is difficult to understand why one would even resort to western foods.


Japan needs refined carbs ( white rice ), and plenty of them! plus vegetables of course.

I have been trying to teach myself how to cook Japanese food (love your site, by the way!) because I want to eat healthier and lose weight. I was also not eating enough fruits and vegetables.

Thanks to these Japanese recipes, I have been eating a lot more vegetables and less cheese and other American-type junk food. I drink more tea and eat smaller portion sizes but I'm satisfied.

I lived in Korea for 6 months and lost weight when I was there by walking a lot (as part of my day getting to work); eating more stir-frys; and not having American junk food so readily accessible. Sadly, I gained the weight back in the years since coming back to the U.S.