This story was updated in February 2019.
If you had the power to engineer a long and vigorous life, you should start by choosing to be born in Japan. It’s no secret that people from the land of the rising sun outlive the rest of the world. According to the World Health Organisation, Japan ranks No.1 in life expectancy at 84 years of age, which is significantly higher than any other country. Not only do the Japanese live longer, but they are considered healthier. They’re known to steer clear of major illnesses or debilitating diseases.
For years, people in the West have been scratching their heads, witnessing the Japanese as they rose from having one of the lowest life expectancy post World War II to topping the charts gradually. Since Japan consumes 25% lesser calories than other countries and has the lowest obesity in the world which is only 3% as compared to western countries at 32%, we have enough evidence to prove that their diet is one of the most important reasons for their incredibly high longevity.
“The way Japanese people eat and move gives them major longevity and health advantage,” admits Naomi Moriyama, author of, ‘Secrets of the World’s Healthiest Children: Why Japanese Children Have The Longest, Healthiest Lives – And How Yours Can Too’. She further expresses, “Compared with other developed nations, Japanese people on average eat fewer calories per day, and in a healthier pattern: more fish, more vegetable products, less meat and dairy, smaller desserts and more reasonable portion sizes”.
Apart from their dietary habits, certain other traditional practices and lifestyle routines of Japanese culture have also been observed and considered successful for building an overall, healthier and happier life. Let’s take a look at Some of the Japanese health secrets, shall we?
The most noticeable and important difference in the lifestyle of the Japanese is simply their diet. By combining low-calorie vegetable meals with a diet heavy in fish, they are capable of getting a proper amount of energy required from their food while also minimising the impact that their diet has on their body. A typical Japan-style meal includes the following:
Being a fermented soya bean paste, Miso is commonly eaten as a soup and can be found simmering in a Japanese kitchen. It’s served with every savoury/spicy dish in Japan to complement and balance its flavours perfectly. It’s high in protein and contains several nutritional values which help in lowering cholesterol, preventing cancer and boosting the immune system.
One of the most loved soya products in the world, Tofu is known to ‘complete’ every meal in Japan. It’s high in protein, low in fat and contains isoflavones which give protection against age-related ailments such as cardiovascular disease, hormone-dependent cancer and loss of cognitive functions.
Sashimi and Sushi are two of the most loved fish delicacies of Japan. They consist of fresh, raw fish sliced into small pieces and eaten with soya sauce. They are a good source of protein, are heart-healthy, contain omega-3 fatty acids and are very low in calories. Not to forget, they are super delicious and flavourful!
Japanese love eating noodles and Soba is one of their healthiest and yummiest options. Soba noodles are made of buckwheat flour which has higher levels of proteins, minerals and vitamins as compared to other noodles like Ramen or Udon. It’s an excellent source of manganese, high in soluble fibre and contains Rutin which is very effective for anti-ageing and lowering blood pressure.
Seaweed is one of the most easily found ingredients in a Japanese kitchen and eaten, either fresh or dry. The fresh ones are mostly added in miso soups, salads or vinegared and dry ones are used for wrapping rice balls or sushi. It’s low in fat but packed with soluble fibre, which helps control blood sugar levels and keeps your bowels moving. The fibre can also help you feel full on very few calories.
Being the healthiest mushroom in the world, Shiitake is often eaten in salads or used as stalk due to its extremely rich flavours. It’s proven to boost the immune system, lower blood cholesterol levels, harden the arteries and cure diabetes, eczema, colds and flu. It’s also used for treating prostate and breast cancer.
Konnyaku is a grey jelly made from Konnyaku potatoes which are full of nutrients. They help keep your blood sugar and cholesterol levels low, improve your skin and gut health, help heal wounds and can even make you lose weight faster.
These green coloured beauties are fresh soya beans which are commonly eaten during summers in Japan. High in protein and rich in vitamins and minerals, they reduce the risk of breast cancer, menopausal symptoms, prostate cancer as well as bone loss. They are either added to salads or eaten as a snack with drinks.
This dish of fermented soybeans is one of the most popular foods in the eastern part of Japan. It’s usually eaten as a part of the first meal of the day along with rice, tofu, miso soup and fish, and also served as a snack in Japanese schools. It not only helps in strengthening your bones and improving digestion but is also a good source of probiotics and protein, contains Vitamin C, promotes weight loss, supplies the body with iron, serves as a blood purifier and enhances the skin.
For centuries, the Japanese have been known for their tea-time culture. Matcha is a fine (and often expensive) powdered tea made of young leaves grown specifically to increase chlorophyll. Not only is it loaded with antioxidants which help boost your defence against cancer, but it also reduces your risk of heart diseases and increases cognitive functions. A study claims that people who drink 5 cups of green tea in a day have a 26% lower mortality rate. No wonder Japanese love consuming this drink after almost every meal.
The Japanese eat about five times the amount of vegetables than any of us do. In Japan, it is not uncommon for vegetable soup or salad to be had for breakfast. The Japanese diet has an edge over others, with their high consumption of cruciferous vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, Chinese cabbage, kale and watercress. These vegetables are not only high in Vitamin C and fibre but also contain potent anti-cancer properties. They are either steamed or stir-fried with a dash of olive oil, pepper and salt, which helps to retain its nutrients and taste even better!
Being surrounded by two of the greatest oceans in the world with a large amount of arable land, there isn’t much need for food to travel very far before it enters people’s mouths. This can be said for Japan’s vegetables as much as it can be said for its fish. In Japanese markets, food isn’t even dated by the day, but by their time – every half-hour, to be precise. This amount of freshness in food helps it retain their maximum nutrients.
A lesser known but an effective method of improving overall health is to consume fermented food – a secret that the Japanese know all too well. Known as tsukemono, the most important benefit of eating fermented food is that it allows good bacteria to grow. This good bacteria, also known as probiotics, helps in controlling inflammation in the body which is majorly responsible for many chronic diseases such as dementia, diabetes, heart diseases and even cancer. Some of their most important and popular fermented side dishes include miso soup, natto, pickled daikons, pickled radish, salt-pickled cabbage and fermented fish, known as Kusaya.
The Japanese consume 12% of the world’s fish despite accounting for only 2% of the global population. Consuming fish on a daily basis keeps their level of omega 3 to omega 6 in check, which has an anti-inflammatory effect on their bodies and helps in keeping the prevalence of chronic diseases at bay. With all that fish to consume, the Japanese are clearly too full to eat red meats! This works in their favour since red meats contain saturated fats, which have been known to clog the arteries if consumed in excess and can even, lead to obesity and heart diseases.
The Japanese eat six times the amount of rice than any other country. It is served with every meal of the day, including breakfast. As a low-fat carbohydrate, rice fills them up so there’s less room for fattening and artery-clogging foods. Studies suggest that rice intake is also associated with a lower risk of developing cardiovascular diseases whereas wheat flour increases it. The Japanese usually, eat rice by mixing it with other foods like fish, veggies and seaweed. These mixed meals, further lessen the impact of any glycemic impact, i.e. high blood sugar levels in your body.
In Japan, sweet desserts are eaten quite rarely. This does not mean that the power of a chocolate pastry, ice creams or a red-bean cake is not treasured, but they are more likely to serve it up with a nice selection of seasonal fruits or sweetened bean paste. Even when Western-style desserts are on the menu, its portion sizes will be considerably smaller. The Japanese are fully aware of the kind of harm they can do to the body when eaten in access, and are thus, more careful with their choices.
The Japanese cook their food in intentionally, light and healthier ways. Most of their work is done on top of the stove using a variety of techniques such as steaming, pan-grilling, saute, simmer or quick stir-frying, using heart-healthy oils and flavoured broth for seasoning. Though their meals seem light, they feel content without being overly full.
Portion control is a traditional part of Japanese cuisine. They not only curtail their food servings but even the size of their plates in which they eat, which is not more than four to six inches in diameters. With the further use of chopsticks, the effort to reach for food for every new bite is in itself a trick to prevent you from overeating. Hence, the basic foundation of a Japanese home-cooked presentation is:
Severe food restrictions are not a part of a Japanese lifestyle. Children are encouraged to enjoy all kinds of treats and snacks but in the right amounts and frequency, only. They exercise what is known as a ‘flexible restraint’ when it comes to consuming unhealthy snacks. To avoid temptations, the Japanese never keep huge bags of potato chips or vats of ice cream in their homes.
Japanese schools turn children into healthy foodies with the help of the country’s famous school lunch program. Starting from elementary school, kids are served a mid-day meal of very healthy dishes that are often made from locally grown foods and freshly prepared on site. With unhealthy food options clearly out of the picture, the children, gradually, learn to like the healthy, delicious food choices put in front of them. The kids even help in preparing and serving lunch. With food education as a part of their curriculum, the kids visit local farms regularly and learn about nutrition, cooking and table manners, as well.
The Japanese have physical activity built into their lives from a very early age. Due to the reduced spaces in the downtown areas of Japan, many people opt to walk, run or ride their bikes to school or work instead of driving or taking a bus. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 98% of Japanese children walk or ride a bike to school. This means that most Japanese kids are meeting the daily requirements of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day, just by walking to and from school. Many Japanese companies also encourage exercise prior to coming for work as they have proven to increase their mental health and levels of productivity.
While countries across the globe have adopted a medical system that’s quick to jump to antibiotics and antacids for a temporary cure, the Japanese still inculcate heavy use of their ancient medical systems that attempt to get to the root of the problem by using healthy dietary habits, strong herbs and prevention practices. This is why meditation, martial arts and other calming rituals that strike a balance between the body and spirit are still an integral part of their culture.
Japanese living spaces are modest, while restaurant prices are relatively cheap, so socialising outside is a regular occurrence. It’s a Japanese custom to eat out with friends rather than invite them in. They even prefer going out for a Karaoke night after office hours to relieve their stress and emotional burden. Friendships and social coherence thus, help in improving their emotional health, thereby leading to Japanese longevity.
When it comes to cleanliness, the Japanese have an admirable reputation towards it. Their cultural methods are largely based on their centuries-old traditions of Shintoism, a large part of which is the concept of purification. In Japan, it’s not even uncommon to bathe twice or thrice in summers. The cleaner they feel within themselves and their surroundings – the lesser will there be any possibilities of falling ill. In fact, Japanese schools even consider cleanliness as a part of their education. All students are responsible for cleaning their own classrooms and bathrooms, themselves.
Therefore, these Japanese-styled habits, which are proven to have conclusive, health benefits, should have you living longer, looking better and feeling much healthier than before. By following some of the above (if not all) mentioned Japanese health secrets & techniques, we all can make a radical difference in our lives. So, go and grab a cup of green tea, right now!
Sources: Tokyotreat, Livejapan, Savorjapan and Thefork
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