Wednesday, January 27, 2010

What do YOU think Wednesdays III - Japanese Eating Habits

Yay Wednesday!
A little secret: I totally overslept this morning (on accident I promise) and was late to work.....shh!!!!! But that extra 45 min of sleep was heavenly. Crazy how much difference 45 min does for my body. Ahhh. Even the rush to get ready felt peaceful for some reason ;)

So here is Part III of What do You think Wednesdays.
The topic today is: Japanese Eating Habits
I haven't written too much about eating habits; I discussed eating healthy on the cheap here, and about what I ate in Japan here and here.
One topic I could talk for hours and hours about though, is the comparison between American eating habits and Japanese eating habits.

Before I go any further, please click HERE and watch the video segment that aired on the Today Show a while back. (Today show is my absolute favorite show. Yes. I know that makes me SuperNerd. I'm OK with that)

In this clip, Ann Curry talks to Harely Pasternak, author of "The 5-Factor World Diet" who is a famous celebrity trainer, author of the notorious 5 Factor Diet.

Usually, I don't care for your so-called "celebrity trainers" touting weight loss secrets. Usually I think they are full of BS. However, this clip caught my eye, as it describes the eating habits of three of the world's healthiest countries; Italy, Sweden, and Japan.

As you know, I grew up in Tokyo basically my entire life, and I've been living in CA for the last 6ish years. My brother has been living here for about 4 years. You know what happened to both of us?

We both accumulated some excess lbs. Oh yes.

What has changed?

As Harley explains in the video, we eat a lot of soy, fish, and green tea in Japan. But I don't want to focus too much on the actual food itself. Harley only briefly explains "The ceremony of eating is so important" in these healthy countries. But actually, this is what I think is the biggest difference.

In Japan, Food, and Eating, is kind of A BIG DEAL. And not just any old thing you can put in your mouth, but really good, fresh, high quality, gourmet food.

Walk into any department store in Japan, and you will typically find 1-2 floors devoted entirely to a collection of the finest foods you can find. Specialty beef. Specialty crabs. Specialty teas. Specialty cheesecake. Specialty chocolates. Specialty tomatoes. Yes, it is expensive compared to your Costco 12 pack of boulder sized muffins. However, in Japan, people are more concerned with the pleasures of savoring a bite of unforgettable goodness rather than stuffing their bellies with food for the sake of feeling full. Now this is easier to do in Japan, since the portion sizes are smaller to begin with. In Japan, other than your growth-spurt, hormone ridden teenage boy who could eat up a fridge, most people will much rather prefer to spend $10 on an ounce of top-grade Kobe beef than buy 10 pounds of no-brand beef. It's kind of the ethos of the Japanese culture, I think, to adore small and delicate things. (top grade sashimi)
I know I'm getting totally off topic from the video. But this has spurred a lot of thought!
Here's a brief list of why I think Japan continues to rank as one of the healthiest countries:

Eat Fresh

When I moved to CA, I was shocked by the quality of the produce in supermarkets. The fruits and veggies looked lackluster, dull, and not very appetizing. (I’m talking about regular stores, not places like Whole Foods) And the yogurt! American yogurts don’t expire for almost a month! WTF is in these things? It makes me wonder just how much preservative they must add.

In Japanese supermarkets, the produce is more expensive than in America, but it looks more vibrant and colorful. Also, people are picky about where their food comes from. Many supermarkets will display on the label where in Japan the eggplant was grown, what prefecture the apples are from, what farm the rice is from, etc. It gives a sense of community as well as safety. And as for yogurt, I’ve never seen a package that expires more than ten days later. (Less preservatives = more fresh)

Also, in Japan, most people go grocery shopping a few times a week, but only buying things they really need for the next day or two. This ensures that you are always eating fresh(er) things, and you don’t waste money by letting leftovers and food go bad in your fridge.

Bite Sized
Seriously. It’s not just a stereotype that American portions are out of control! For example, the smallest cup size at Starbucks here is the “tall”, which is 12 ounces. In Japan, that’s the medium size. Most people order the “short” size, which is only 8 ounces. Another example is yogurt. Even though it’s a “healthy” food, in America, most containers are about 6 ounces. In Japan, it’s about 3.5 ounces. The difference is small, but over a lifetime, those calories add up. Most things considered "small" to "medium" here would translate to a "large" and "X-Large" in Japan.

(Specialty bite sized cakes)

Think Green
Green tea with McDonald’s? Yup. Japanese people drink tea with their fries. Walk into any 7-11 or grocery store, and you will find more varieties of tea than soda or juice. Not only is tea calorie-free, it also contains a lot of antioxidants and is good for your health.

I'm continuously surprised at how much sugary coffee drinks Americans drink everyday! Sure, it’s a great pick-me-up and all, but some of those concoctions can have upwards of 400 calories!

Quality over quantity

I have come to the conclusion that Americans REALLY value quantity. So much so that they are willing to compromise quality for quantity. Costco sells 50 mediocre looking apples for 20 cents each. It may look like a steal, but a Japanese person would see that and think, “hmmmm. But is it domestic? Where does it come from? How good is it?” and would prefer to go to a specialty store and buy a domestic, fresh, ripe apple for a dollar.

Same goes with dessert. Here, you can buy a GIGANTIC scone for $1.50 at most cafes. They taste OK, and fills you up. But in Japan, we would go to our favorite bakery, cake shop, or a famous pastry shop and splurge on a dessert that is truly exceptional. These desserts tend to be smaller and more expensive, yes, but they leave you feeling more satisfied and happy.

Phew! That was a looooooooooooong post. And please note that I am NOT attacking American culture in any way.... just making generalizations. These are just some of the observations I have made from living in America and in Japan. I obviously don't have the best eating habits in the world, so who am I to talk, right? But I just think that when it comes to staying healthy through food, Japanese people are onto something that Americans can learn.

Sorry this is long, but if you made it through to the bottom, please share, what do you think?

  • Have you lived in/spent time in another country with a very different food culture? Did you learn anything new from that culture?
  • What's one thing you would want to see changed about American food culture/food industry?
  • What's one food habit that keeps you healthy?
Again, thanks so much for reading and sharing your views! :)


  1. I totally agree with you. Sometimes it feel like we almost have to convince ourselves as Americans that it's ok not to be hungry. I notice that a lot of times I eat just to eat or because others are doing it. You are totally right, we'll eat almost anything too. I'm realize this and want to change it. I love tea. If you have a non-sugary light tea that you suggest..please let me know!

  2. Excellent post! You've raised some really good points.

    One thing I have always noticed is PORTION SIZES. Even from Canada to the U.S., it's pretty shocking how sizes compare. (XL fries here is M or L in the U.S.)

    I firmly believe in 'Everything in Moderation'. So yeah, I'll eat my fries once in a while... but there's a big difference between ordering a small or an XL.

  3. I love this post! Seriously, you have such great points!

  4. I want to move to Japan if for nothing else than to eat fresh and portioned!

    Thanks for all the great info and teaching us about the art of eating! :)

  5. i believe we seriously have a problem. the obesity in our country is due to portion sizes and poor choices. i too have terrible eating habits and want to make a change. things like soy and fish dont sound good to me. i was raised a picky eater and to this day am. i dont know if i could make it in japan. im not used to those types of food. and although healthy, it would be a huge change.

  6. I wish that our food had less crap added and that there was more of an emphasis on buying local. Also, portion size needs to be slashed. A lot of people have lost the ability to recognize what an acceptable amount of food is and, as you said, go for quantity per dollar.

    A food habit I try to follow is no candy/pastries, etc. during the week. And I make sure to get enough protein and plants in each day. And drink as much water as I can.

  7. Hi Julia,
    Great post again!! I love Japanese food and miss the real deal. I was fortunate enough to visit Tokyo, Japan when I was a flight attendant and loved the food! I enjoyed walking into the markets and seeing all of the different kinds of produce and the huge selection of fish and seafood:) Thanks for the great information and have a great day!!

  8. I completely agree. I've never lived in another country, but I did spend 2 weeks in Japan for training for work a few years ago. I remember going to McDonald's once while we were there. The "Large" soda was smaller than the small soda here, and green tea at every meal.

  9. Great post! Smaller portion sizes is definitely something I need to work on. One way I try to stay healthy is by almost never drinking soda, coffee, or iced tea. My co-workers think I'm weird when we go out to eat, but I don't need the extra calories plus it saves me money.

  10. This is so interesting. I'm especially intrigued by the differences in the produce in California and Japan.

  11. This post inspired some interesting conversation between the hubster and I. You see, he's half Thai and I think that his food culture has taught me a lot about food and flavor. I grew up in West Virginia where everything is fried for flavor and he grew up with food with all these amazing herbs and spices added to lean proteins. The prep that goes into Thai food is definitely an event in itself. That was a big lesson for me. Flavor trumps fat every time!

    Anyway, great post!

  12. I absolutely agree with you! I spent a semester abroad in England while I was in college, and I was surprised to find how much smaller portions were. Even the "American" chains like McD's had much smaller value meals etc. I tried to bring home with me the idea of enjoying the quality of my food vs. the quantity.

  13. Girl, move over on that soap box, cuz I'm joining you! If you aren't going to bash the American culture, I will. I totally think that us American's have an "eating disorder". We eat way too much processed, junkie crap food. We need eat more veggies, less meat, less dairy, and less sugar! And yes, our portion control is way OUT of CONTROL!

    I have never lived in another country, but I would fit in well with your country. I love to buy local and fresh produce. I eat a lot of soy products and I'm a vegetarian, but I would probably consider eating fresh fish if I had access to eat.

  14. Your boyfriend is adorable! :)

    And, just curious, what brought you & your brother to the States?

  15. You are so right about the food being super sized and lasting forever. I wish American's were more like other cultures shopping fresh and eating smaller portions.



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