7 healthy lessons to eat like the Japanese – by guest expert Melinda Boyd RD

Cultured Cuisine — By on November 15, 2012 at 10:10 pm

We absolutely love introducing you to new dietitians, especially those traveling and exploring around the globe. Like good foodie tourists they hunt out the most delicious and nutritious foods, but more importantly those winning lifestyle factors for good health that we explore in our Cultured Cuisine category.  I’ve already shared my love affair with Japan and their school dietitians and am delighted that we can bring you more.

About our expert:

Melinda Boyd, MPH, MHR, RD is an American dietitian and military spouse living in Japan.  She specialises in weight management, as well as maternal/child nutrition, and is the author of Train Your Brain to Get Thin.  In her free time she loves to travel and learn about other cultures and their food practices and blog when she can at Nutrition Food Travel and More.  Melinda was recently in Australia for the International Congress of Dietetics – so check out her impressions and ugg boots in her archive posts.  And follow her on twitter @RDonthemove.

When I first moved to Japan, I immersed myself in the culture, mostly focusing on food.  Not just because I am a dietitian, but because it is an easy way to connect with people.  Everyone needs to eat and everyone seeks out nourishment daily.  In addition, eating is a social activity, and that can transcend any language barrier.  As someone who travels often, I make sure to learn some of the basics of culture and customs related to foods, since it is not always as straightforward as eat the food, smile and say thank you.  Once you know some of the basics for enjoying the meal and being respectful to your host, you will be able to have an authentic, cultural dining experience.

As time went on, I became more comfortable dining in Japan started to learn more about traditional Japanese foods.  I was amazed by their sense of well-being and understanding of the role of diet on health.  With one of the longest life expectancies in the world, there are certainly a few things we can learn from the Japanese to help our own diets, no matter where we live.

 

1)     Use chopsticks- Talk about mindful eating!  You actually have to work to eat your food, and in the beginning, this is hard work.  True, over time it gets easier, but it certainly makes you have to focus on what you are eating.  You can’t get the food in your mouth without making a conscious effort.  Plus, you will end up eating more slowly, which can aid in preventing over eating.

2)     Make vegetables the focus on the meal- The traditional Japanese diet focuses on vegetables, and meats, if consumed, act as more of a side dish.  The Japanese have a variety of vegetables they use.  Outside of Japan you can find many of these in International or Asian markets.  Try out the daikon, which is a giant (and I mean giant) white radish, and kabocha, which is the Japanese word for pumpkin, but differs from other pumpkins around the world (you eat the skin).

3)     Use less sugar- For anyone that has been lucky enough to try a Japanese baked good, you know that the focus is more on the ingredients and flavors, and less on an intense sweet flavor.  Many Japanese sweets are not really sweet at all.  There is less sugar used, and ultimately this means less calories.  Instead of tasting “sweet”, learn to taste the actual flavors.

4)     Eat like an Okinawan- We can all learn a thing or two from the Okinawans.  The people living in Okinawa, Japanese islands south of the mainland, boost some of the highest life expectancies in the world.  Known for their longevity, much of this has to do with their diet and lifestyle.  While we can’t recreate their lifestyle and all their traditional dishes outside of Okinawa, we can take a page out of their beliefs on food.  With a strong belief in food and the health properties of things they eat, Okinawans leave out foods that don’t provide any benefit to their health.  The focus is on vegetables and lean meats, with a lower rice intake that other parts of Japan.  Instead, the main starch, traditionally, is sweet potato.  They also enjoy a variety of tropical fruits, like mango and papaya.

5)     Eat smaller portions – Japanese portions are typically smaller than you find in other countries.  Even “junk foods” come packaged in smaller servings.  You learn to enjoy the small taste of the food, rather than overindulge.  For main meal items, portions come small, with multiple foods on a plate.  Traditional Japanese meals, excluding noodle dishes and sushi, often come as a set meal with multiple “courses”.  You may try many different foods in one sitting, but each are just a few bites.

6)     Don’t eat on the go – Take a moment to slow down and enjoy what you are eating.  In Japan you will rarely find anyone eating or drinking beverages in locations other than where food and drink should be consumed. When it comes time to eat, stop everything else and focus on the meal.  It is considered rude to walk around eating and drinking on the streets.

7)     Cook at home – Traditionally, eating out is reserved for special occasions.  Most families cook dinner at home and pack lunches to take for school and work.  Family dining is important and this time is used for nourishment of the mind and body.

Living in Japan has been a great experience and I love all of the things I have learned about the healthy diets of the Japanese.  I’ve also learned that you don’t need to live in Japan to benefit from their healthy habits.  Just a few small changes to bring your dining experience into awareness, which means less overeating, and healthier choices.  I think we can all learn a lot from the Japanese.  Hopefully you can take these lessons and use them to your benefit.  Happy eating!

Editor’s comment:

Thanks Melinda, your photos are too amazing and make me jealous for more. Plus congrats on your book! I bet our lovely Scoop readers are longing to ask you more?

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  • Sarah Fitzmaurice

    Hello Melinda, thanks for the article. I’ve just been reading about the so-called ‘Paleo’ way of eating. It’s very interesting and I’m pondering it – I just can’t imagine a world without grains and pulses – and am still confused about why they are not on the menu -but my point is that it occurs to me that the Japanese diet has its similarities to ‘Paleo’ – is this right? High in meat, shellfish, vegetables etc. And apart from rice, grains don’t seem to feature very much, is that correct?

  • http://www.scoopnutrition.com Emma Stirling

    Thanks Sarah for your question, I’ll jump in quickly before giving Melinda a chance to reply too as we wrote a post previously on the Paleo diet for everyone’s background reference: http://www.scoopnutrition.com/2011/10/the-scoop-on-paleo-diets-with-guest-expert-ashleigh-jones-apd/

  • http://nutrfoodtrvl.blogspot.com Melinda

    Thanks Sarah, good question. The Japanese diet relies on grains typical to the area and some of those other whole grains and legumes just aren’t grown here. Rice is held in very high regard and remains the top grain. But it is not the only grain food. Noodles are also very popular in the Japanese diet. Soba noodles (made from buckwheat) are popular, as are ramen noodles and udon noodles. There are traditional dishes made from these noodles. Another popular starch is the potato, specifically varieties of sweet potatoes, and even kabocha (Japanese pumpkin). Not a grain, but still serves as a carbohydrate source. As for similarities to Paleo, there are some basics to a healthy diet in general, and the Paleo starts off there before making restrictions on certain foods. It is those same healthy basics, that foundation to a healthy diet, that is similar to the Japanese. Lean meats (specifically fish and seafood), vegetables and fruits. Like many Asian cultures, the meat will be more of a side dish, rather than the center piece of the meal. They just don’t have the same whole grains or pulses like other countries, but that would also be a healthy part of a balanced diet, so no need to try and go without it.

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  • https://twitter.com/#!/TiffWill_tweets Tiffany

    Brilliant post Melinda. What Japanese foods/dishes have you taken a particular liking to?

    Love the notion of shared meals as nourishing both the mind and body. Extended brunch/lunch/dinner with friends or family is one of my favourite things in life. Eating in front of the television will be a no-no in my future household!

    Tiff :)

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