Nourishing Traditions: The Secrets of the Japanese Diet

by Nana Young

With the third longest life expectancy, Japan has been proven to be one of the healthiest countries in the world. Researchers discovered that the secret to this feat lies in the country’s diet. In this post, we’ll reveal the full scope of the diet in Japan and why it’s so healthy. Who knows? You could learn a few tricks to help you improve your own diet.

Introduction: Understanding Diet in Japan

Traditional Japanese cuisine Nikujaga set meal

The concept of the traditional Japanese diet is simple. Eat more fish and soybeans, consume less fat and meat, and add umami to every dish. Granted, that is a greatly condensed version of the actual Japanese diet, but it should give you a solid understanding of what it entails.

The entire dietary concept is based on “washoku,” which is a term used when referring to Japanese cuisine. The features of washoku include flavor balance, seasonality, presentation, and freshness.

By combining taste with nutritional balance, Washoku has created a Japanese diet recognized for its health benefits. The majority of the food eaten in the country helps with weight loss, prevents disease, and prolongs life. Even the cooking techniques used to prepare these dishes can improve their nutritional value. Washoku and all its principles are the bedrock of the Japanese diet, which has left the world in awe.

What is the Japanese Diet?

Japanese Teishoku, well balanced diet

The Japanese diet is one that is based on largely unrefined, fresh, and unprocessed foods. It primarily consists of soybeans, seafood, fruits, smoked foods, and vegetables, with as little emphasis on fatty foods and refined sugar as possible. To understand the Japanese diet, you have to explore its typical components, which we’ll discuss below. Together, the following components bring balance to the daily meals the Japanese eat:

  1. Rice or noodles: Most Japanese dishes contain at least one staple food. More often than not, this food is rice. However, ramen, soba, and udon noodles are common alternatives used as the base of these meals.

  2. Soybeans: Both fermented and regular versions of soybeans are used to make popular dishes like tofu, miso, soy sauce, natto, and tamari.

  3. Seafood: This encompasses all types of food and ingredients sourced from the sea. Fish consumption, especially, is a lot higher in Japan because the country is made up of several islands with easy access to the sea. Sushi and sashimi are two seafood meals common in the average diet.

  4. Fruits: Fresh and seasonal fruits are directly eaten or added as ingredients for making desserts and sweets. Yuzu, strawberry, apple, and orange are common examples.

  5. Vegetables: The diet places great emphasis on cooked and pickled vegetables like spring onions, pickled ginger, seaweed, and even green tea. They’re typically chopped and prepared using a variety of methods.

The Foundation of Japanese Dietary Practices

A traditional Japanese lunch set teishoku with miso soup, white rice, mushrooms, meat and eggs dish, natto fermented beans, and mushroom appetizer.

Japan had a severe food shortage after World War II ended in 1945, which forced it to rely on food imports from the United States. This dependence caused the country to adopt a Western-style diet. However, it was soon evident that the US struggled with health problems because of this diet, prompting the Japanese to create their own dietary habits in the 1970s.

The eating patterns of the 1970s have had a significant influence on the modern Japanese diet. Back then, rice was the major attraction, and there were also main and side dishes with fruits, seafood, and vegetables. Washoku became rampant, along with other traditional eating philosophies tied to seasonality, balance in taste, and aesthetics. One of these philosophies, Ichiju-sansai, or “one soup, three dishes,” is the basis of Japanese cuisine. It originated in the Muromachi period (1336–1573) but is still relevant today. Ichiju-sansai is a set meal of rice, soup (the main dish), and two side dishes.

Health Benefits of the Japanese Diet

Well balanced diet improves overall health

The Japanese diet is one of the healthiest in the world and with good reason. Below, we’ll provide key details of the health benefits associated with the diet.

  1. Longevity: According to the World Health Organization's (WHO) database on life expectancy, Japan has a life expectancy of 84.3 years. To put this into context, the average life expectancy in the world is 73.3 years. Hence, the average Japanese person is expected to live 11 years longer than the average human. Experts claim that the reason for this obvious longevity is the traditional diet, which consists of minimal processed foods, fat, and sugar while providing beneficial nutrients.

  2. Weight loss: Only 7.63% of male adults and 3.62% of female adults in Japan are obese. This is according to data published by the Global Obesity Observatory. The Japanese diet contains a lot of fiber-rich vegetables and little fat, so it provides low calorie count. That and its ability to promote healthy eating habits make it an ideal diet for weight loss.

  3. Disease prevention: In 2017, a group of nutritionists from Tokyo and Kyoto carried out a study with 33 male subjects. The men were encouraged to follow the Japanese diet for 6 weeks, after which they were to report back for medical checkups. At the end of the 6 weeks, about 91% of the subjects were less susceptible to cardiovascular diseases. They also had reduced cholesterol levels and weights.

  4. Better Digestion: The traditional Japanese diet consists of fiber-rich foods like soybeans, fruits, seaweed, and veggies. They help to feed the helpful bacteria in our gut that’s responsible for breaking down food and facilitating digestion.

Key Components of the Japanese Diet

Grilled beef tongue set meal, Sendai gyutan teishoku

There are 4 main components of the typical Japanese diet. Let’s explore each one, uncover their essential food options, and explain their role in meals.

  1. Staple Food: This is the base for the entire meal and is complemented by the other components. The most common Japanese staples are white rice, glutinous rice, and wheat-based noodles.

  2. Soup: The main source of umami flavor for the meal. It generally takes the form of miso soup made with dashi soup stock.

  3. Main Dish: It can have enough flavor and depth to be eaten on its own. A variety of edible meat, fish, and seafood can serve as the main dish. Sushi is a great example.

  4. Side Dish: Brings additional balance and flavor to the meal. Although side dishes differ based on season and region, common examples include vegetables, seaweed, and mushrooms.

Is Japanese Food Healthy? Debunking Myths

Sushi with eel dipped in soy sauce closeup

Despite the endless studies and scientific reports presented by experts from around the world, there are those who doubt the healthy nature of traditional Japanese food. The most common misconception about the diet is that it contains too much sodium. We understand why people might think that. There seems to be soy sauce in every traditional dish, and the condiment is notorious for its high sodium concentration. However, the idea is false. Soy sauce is not to be used as a dipping sauce, like many seem to believe. It’s a flavorful condiment that only requires a light drizzle.

Another common myth is that the Japanese diet is all-natural. That’s wrong because some of the ingredients used are processed. Certain sushi ingredients and what people call “wasabi” are most likely artificial. However, the Japanese diet is generally healthy if the source is authentic and if you maintain the traditional principle of moderation. Less is more!

Traditional vs. Modern Japanese Diet

Young woman joyfully digs into her delicious gourmet beef meal

The modern Japanese diet may have originated from traditional dietary habits, but there have been several changes between then and now. For one, the traditional diet was focused on fresh foods with minimal dietary choices. Today, the modern diet includes industrially processed foods and a wide variety of food options to choose from. Also, people ate less meat in ancient Japan due to Buddhist beliefs. However, the modern diet incorporates meat into meals like sushi and ramen. Globalization has also affected the Japanese diet by creating more Westernized recipes, such as purin and castella desserts.

Regional Variations in Japanese Cuisine

Okinawa Soba noodles, important part of okinawa diet

Regional cuisine or kyōdo ryōri in Japanese, originates from recipes using local ingredients and cooking techniques. The effect of regionality on the Japanese diet is strong enough for two people to have significantly different ideas of how a dish should taste. For example, udon noodles from the Kantō region contain a heavy amount of dark soy sauce, but the same dish only contains light soy sauce in the Kansai region. Other famous dishes from different regions are Hokkaido ramen, Edo Bay sushi, Osaka and Hiroshima style okonomiyaki, Tonkotsu ramen, and Okinawa soba.

Japanese Superfoods You Should Know

Tofu, full of beneficial compounds and low in calories

Japanese superfoods are highly-nutritious and popular meals in the country’s modern cuisine. Check out the very best of them:

  1. Natto: a meal of fermented soybeans. Fermented foods produce probiotics that improve gut health and aid digestion.

  2. Miso: a soup made from rice, fermented soybeans, koji, and salt. It improves cognitive health and is a combination of essential proteins and vitamins.

  3. Matcha: the ultimate Japanese green tea powder. It’s a rich source of catechin antioxidants that prevent diseases and cell damage.

  4. Sashimi: a meal of raw fish that provides multiple health benefits, including weight loss, lower cholesterol level, and improved heart health.

  5. Tofu: a side dish often made with boiled soybeans. It promotes cardiovascular health and lowers cholesterol in the body.

Healthiest Japanese Meals for Everyday Cooking

Healthy and fresh seaweed. dry seaweed. sea vegetables.

To make easy-to-prepare, healthy Japanese meals suitable for daily cooking, you’ll need to fill your pantry with the right ingredients. One of them is nori (seaweed). You can eat it as a snack or on top of rice and noodle dishes. Daikon is another great option. Bake or boil it and add it to stews and soups.

Also, you should be ready to make miso soup often by boiling fish broth with the land and sea vegetables you like. Don’t forget to keep some yuzu (citrus fruit) and green tea around.

Incorporating Japanese Dietary Practices into Your Diet

Parents and children having fun cooking in the kitchen together

Now that you have a solid idea of how the Japanese diet works, here is some practical advice and tips for integrating it into your life.

  1. Eat more grains, especially steamed rice and soybeans.

  2. Limit refined sugar and use natural or fruit-based sweetness instead.

  3. Limit your salt and fat intake.

  4. Add as many vegetables and seafood as possible to your diet

  5. Practice mindful eating habits. You always want to remain in control.

  6. Eat more smoked foods.

The Impact of Seasonality on the Japanese Diet

Japanese Autumn food images

In Japan, seasonal ingredients are key to a healthy diet because of the belief that they’re at their peak of nutrient content and flavors when in season. The term “shun” is often used to describe ingredients that are in season. For instance, in spring, snow peas, turnips, and clamps are considered shun foods. Shun foods are not only fresh but easily grow naturally without causing pollution or energy waste. 

Conclusion: Embracing the Traditional Japanese Diet

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The diet in Japan is the reason people in the country live longer, are less obese, and enjoy far healthier lives than those overseas. If you’ve been thinking of eating more veggies, we recommend you check out Japanese cuisine for exciting ways to enjoy them. You can also adopt other aspects of this diet for improved health.

Also, if you have a sweet tooth and would like to try sweets and snacks made with natural ingredients, we’ve got you covered. Get a Bokksu Snack Box Subscription and we’ll send you a box of sweet, healthy treats from Japan every month.

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