Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Won't Miss #543 - "Japanese food is healthy"

One of the things you notice about not living in Japan is that people aren't nearly as interested in talking about it. That means that I no longer find myself hearing comments about how Japanese culture is superior in this way or that way on a regular basis. One of the highest grounds that people tended to occupy when it came to expressing how much better Japanese culture was than others (usually American, because everyone knows America is a horrible place full of horrible people who do and produce horrible things) about how the cuisine was so incredibly healthy. To hear my students talk, Japanese food never strayed from the fish, tofu, rice, soup, and vegetables that most Western folks believe make up the core of the Japanese diet. The truth was that the Japanese diet consisted entirely of those items in the same way that American diets consist only of burgers, fries, and pizza. People in neither country consume stereotypical meals.

The stickiest point for me when it came to how supposedly healthy Japanese food was was the enormous consumption of white rice. In the U.S., if anyone ate so much of a white starchy food, the food police would cuff them and take them in for blood sugar crimes. In Japan, it's somehow the core of a "healthy" diet, and Japanese people almost universally eat white rice. Brown rice is only consumed because people are sick or if they are following an atypical diet. I also found that consumption of fruit and fresh vegetables was shockingly low (as was the drinking of water). If you don't believe me, do a web search on images of Japanese bento and see how ornamental fruit and vegetables are - a few grapes here, half a strawberry there, a cherry tomato or three here and there, a few slices of flower-shaped carrots. Mostly, it's rice, fish, and, if there's a salad, it's a bit of shredded cabbage drenched in mayo or thousand island dressing.

At any rate, as someone who saw and talked about what people actually ate, and who had to struggle to find and pay much, much more for anything that was brown (bread, rice, pasta, etc.), I found the claims of how healthy the Japanese diet was in terms of composition over-rated. Frankly, I think the diet in Japan is better because of portion sizes and variety - not because all of the food is so much healthier on the whole. I don't miss hearing people pompously assert how healthy the Japanese diet was.

Note to commenters: This is not a pissing contest. It's not about "Japanese food is healthier than (other country's food)," but whether or not the Japanese can universally and smugly claim their diet is "healthy". If you want to simply say, "X is better than Y," then you already "win." Congratulations.  Your comment will not be necessary. 


  1. I so agree with you! When I was discussing Low-Carbing in Japan with a Canadian doctor, she assumed that it would be easy to eat low carb here...Er...no!

    I am tired of being told how healthy Japanese food is. The area I live in is famous for its salty food...sometimes it is inedible, there is so much salt in or on it.

    I like most Japanese food, but I don't want to eat it every day!

  2. I think most foreign folks think of Japanese food in a very narrow range - sushi, sashimi, tofu, rice. The saltiness is definitely a huge factor, and I pity anyone who has to try to deal with a low-sodium diet in Japan!

    For me, it was difficult because of all of the fat. I'm okay with some fat in my diet, but soup broth (especially anything with noodles) with blobs of oil swimming in it was really disgusting to me. The bento you could buy pre-made was almost universally pretty awful as well!

    Thanks for commenting!

  3. This bugged me almost an unreasonable amount when I was living in Japan, mostly due to the fact that I put on quite a bit of weight there and had to deal with people insisting I stop eating American food and instead go for a more Japanese diet. Um, I had been? And that was why I put on the weight?

    A big part of it was my fault. I bought into the "all Japanese food is healthy" idea without thinking it through too well. It really should have occurred to me that, despite what I was told by students and friends there, refined bean cakes, piles of white rice and white bread and the many delicious fried treats such as karaage weren't actual health foods by virtue of being Japanese. Delicious, yes. I wasn't alone in this--most of the women my age also gained quite a bit of weight, much to the dismay of local friends. I think most people gain weight when first moving abroad but we had this belief that it wouldn't happen in Japan.

    On the other hand, what I wouldn't give to be able to eat carbs WITH GLUTEN in peace these days.

    1. I think Japanese people know their food and the limits and, like you, I made the mistake of thinking "healthy" meant it wouldn't make me fat (and I also gained a lot of weight in Japan). I've investigated nutrition a lot more in recent years and I've figured out that calories are high in healthy food sometimes, too. A Krispy Kreme donut and a coffee (black) has fewer calories than a serving of oatmeal and a banana. The latter is better for you, but, it's going to give you more to metabolize!

      I don't get harassed about gluten much. I'm more likely to encounter self-righteous vegetarians (who wear leather :-p), but I have read about plenty of people who are fanatic about gluten!

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Totally agree.

    I definitely miss substantial amounts of vegetables in my dishes. I've even been known to eat at Ringer Hut (despite not really liking their ramen) just because I have a hankering for a bunch of veggies. Normally I would also use Chinese food as a good alternative but I find most "japanese" Chinese restaurants also skimp on the veggies.

    We found a good brown rice at Costco that we use at home...and ugh, don't get me started on the difficulties of finding good multi-grain breads. My wife has begun to teach herself how to bake just to get some good bread action.

    What's funny is how big the vegetable sections are at the supermarkets. Maybe people use them more in home cooking.

  5. Oh god yes! The diet and lifestyle habits of the typical Japanese city-based consumer are terrible.

    Fried food, beer, full fat milk, heavy on the carbohydrates, low on the fruit and vegetables.

    At weekends I cycle along the rivers in Tokyo only to see men stopping with their incredibly expensive bikes for a quick cigarette break! Makes my head hurt, but don't criticise, you'll be shut down faster than a salaryman quaffing a hi-ball.

    On a personal level I am still fighting to lose the weight I gained in my first year in Japan.

    "It's cultural" apparently.

  6. Another myth busted. I keep wondering what myths of Japan will hold any water upon close inspection. I haven't found any.
    But the Japanese share the blame of misrepresenting their culture with us Westerners - many over here need Japan as an exotic conversational topic to show how cultured they are, and react angrily when there's a bad apple who doesn't take part in the perpetuating of false myths.
    That is, if you find people who even care about Japan (something that I can confirm to be very hard to do, and something that consoles me as it shows that the importance of Japan in the world is probably just another myth, if an often repeated one).

  7. It's the carb bombs that get me. I admire the people who can tolerate farinaceous fare such as sweet potato breads or bread with stir fried oodles. I consider it a bit of a paradox. Most japanese confection are not particularly sweet, but the culture is exceptionally creative on inventing new starch-on-starch combination of foods.


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