Japanese Eating Habits and Dietary Guide

Japanese Eating Habits and Dietary Guide

Posted by Yukiko Kisaki on 16th Oct 2019

Factors Contributing to the Lowest Obesity Rate in the World

Typical Japanese diet

Contrary to common belief, Japanese meal portions are not very small. However, instead of lots of one type of food on one plate, they serve more variety in smaller portions. A typical Japanese meal has one soup, three dishes, and a bowl of rice.

According to a 2017 study by OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the obesity rate in Japan is 3.7% — compared to 15% in France, 27% in the United Kingdom, 28% in Australia and an alarming 38% in the USA. The Japanese healthy eating habits, coupled with high intake of quality foods, are important factors contributing to the nation's stellar performance.

Healthy Eating Habits

Japanese old saying hara hachi bu means "stop eating when you are eight-tenths full." It takes around twenty minutes for the brain to process the information coming from the stomach. If we continue to eat until we feel full, we will overeat. Try it. Stop eating when you feel almost full; you should feel full after less than half an hour.

For the Japanese, a key aspect of food is its savory ( umami) content. Umami is the fifth taste, next to sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Savory foods trigger the secretion of saliva and digestive enzymes, facilitating better breakdown and absorption of nutrients in foods.

Eating with chopsticks instead of utensils

Can using chopsticks lead to better health? The short answer is: Probably yes. 

Compared to forks and spoons, chopsticks pick up less food. Smaller bites result in more efficient chewing and better digestion. Using chopsticks also slows down the eating process, giving our brain time to figure out we are full and helping us prevent overeating.


Bowl of Japanese rice

Rice is a staple food in Japan, always cooked and eaten with no butter or oil. A low-fat, complex carbohydrate, rice makes for a filling dish and leaves less room for cravings, so you eat less other things. Rice provides the body with a quick boost of energy. It also helps stabilize blood sugar levels and promotes proper bowel movement.


Fresh fish on bamboo leaves

The Japanese annually consume 70 kilograms of fish per person, compared to 26 kg in western Europe and a mere 7 kg in the United States. Fish is rich in omega-3 fatty acids. It is also an excellent source of low-fat and low-calorie protein, riboflavin, calcium, and phosphorous.


Seaweed on bamboo tray

In Japan, seaweeds such as kombu, wakame, and nori are consumed abundantly in soups, sushi, salads, stir-fries, and numerous side dishes. Eating seaweed is a simple way of boosting the intake of vitamins and minerals without adding many calories. Seaweed is rich in iodine. It also contains high amounts of minerals, fiber, and beta-carotene.


Block of fresh tofu on bamboo leaves

Tofu is made from soybean curds. It comes in a variety of textures including silky soft, firm and extra firm. Tofu is gluten-free and very low in calories. It is an excellent source of easy-to-digest protein, packed with an impressive array of nutrients. Tofu lowers cholesterol and improves cardiovascular health. It also contains all nine essential amino acids our bodies need.


Traditional Edo-era Japanese vegetables

The Japanese diet includes lots of vegetables. As an example, the typical Japanese diet contains nearly five times the amount of cabbage compared to western dishes. Cabbage is an excellent source of dietary fiber and contains high levels of vitamins A, C, and E as well as calcium and iron. Cabbage is a member of the brassica family of vegetables, which includes broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, radish, turnip, and bok choy — all with similar benefits.


Various Japanese mushrooms

Mushrooms are superfoods. They are very low in calories, free of cholesterol and packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. As an example, 100 grams of shiitake mushroom has less than 30 calories but packs about 25% of the daily value (DV) of vitamin B3 and 15% of vitamin B6. Besides shiitake, Japanese consume various other types of mushrooms such as enoki, shimeji, maitake, nameko, and eringi. The Japanese word for mushroom is kinoko. It literally means tree children, but is rarely used because it is not specific enough; in Japan, even children know many mushrooms by type.

Green Tea

Japanese green tea and teapot

The Japanese love their green tea; even convenience stores and vending machines carry a wide selection of both hot and cold green teas A thermos full of green tea is a must-have on family and school outings or for packing lunch boxes. Green tea slows the skin's aging process, boosts protection from sun damage, increases immunity, and improves cardiovascular health, among numerous other benefits. Japanese green teas have fresh color, delicate flavor, and lots of beneficial antioxidants because they are processed quickly after harvest, without undergoing fermentation as in black teas.

Herbal Teas

Various Japanese herbal teas

Japanese herbal teas offer numerous benefits ranging from boosting immunity to improving complexion, brewed in traditional senjiru style from herbs such as:

  • Artemisia leaves (yomogi cha)
  • Black soybeans (kuromame cha)
  • Ganoderma mushrooms (saru no koshikake)
  • Ginkgo biloba leaves (ichōba cha)
  • Heartleaf (dokudami cha)
  • Loquat leaves (biwa cha)
  • Mulberry leaves (kuwa no ha cha)
  • Pearl barley (hatomugi cha)
  • Persimmon leaves (kaki no ha cha)
  • Seaweed (kombu cha)
  • Seaweed and sour plums (ume kombu cha)