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They may be renowned for sushi and sumo wrestlers – and more recently for their brilliance at rugby – but the Japanese should be celebrated for a less well known phenomenon: being the healthiest people on the planet.
According to a major global analysis in the Lancet, a child born in Japan today will have a longer, healthier life than one born in any other country on earth – including the UK, which did not even make the top 20 countries in the study’s findings for healthy life expectancy; coming in at a dismal 23rd, just below Greece.
The study, published in 2012, ranked the world’s 187 nations by Healthy Life Expectancy (or HLE) – a measure of how many years a child born today might be expected to live in “full health”. It found that Japan had the healthiest life expectancy for both sexes.
Experts think there are several reasons for this achievement, including an impressive healthcare system with universal coverage, strong public health programmes and a more cohesive social structure. But according to the authors of a new book on the subject, Japan’s victory in the “World Health Olympics” is also due to its lifestyle – in particular, a unique approach to food and exercise.Its co-authors, Tokyo-born Naomi Moriyama and her American husband William Doyle say that families everywhere can learn from the Japanese way of doing things, without necessarily switching to chopsticks or regularly consuming sushi (although some of the book’s recipes sound delicious). The secret, they argue, is “tweak” our own habits to bring them into line with the Japanese way of life.
“We got interested in this when the Lancet study came out and of course, because of my background” says Moriyama, who grew up on her family’s farm in rural Japan and now lives with her TV producer husband in Manhattan’s glitzy upper east side with their son Brendan, aged eight. “When I had a child of my own, I wanted to help my son enjoy healthy eating patterns and I needed a book like this,” she says.
Delving deeper into Japan’s health-giving secrets, the couple travelled widely in the country with their young son, looking for answers in homes, schools, research institutions, supermarkets and farmers’ markets. They interviewed some of the world’s leading experts on child health and nutrition, as well as a cross- section of Japanese mothers of young children living in New York.
Moriyama and Doyle concluded there are many probable reasons why the Japanese enjoy good health, including regular comprehensive health check- ups, a cultural stress on hygiene and sharp reductions in infectious diseases and infant mortality in the last 30 years.
Moriyama and Doyle’s advice is to give family food habits a “Japanese-style tweak” with more emphasis on nutrient dense vegetables, and less on meat, fat and dairy and sugar
But they also found that the traditional Japanese lifestyle is in line with today’s advice on staying healthy, with its emphasis on eating more fruit and vegetables and less fat (especially saturated fat), meat, dairy and sugar, as well as taking regular physical exercise.
“Japan isn’t immune to Western influence and Japanese children face the same challenges as children around the developed world face – a plethora of high-fat, high- sugar convenience foods and too much screen time,” says Moriyama.
But Japan is “holding the line” on one of the biggest modern health problems: it has the lowest prevalence of childhood obesity in the world.
So what are Japanese families are doing right – and what, if anything, can UK parents learn from them?
Moriyama and Doyle’s advice is to give family food habits a “Japanese-style tweak” with more emphasis on nutrient dense vegetables, and less on meat, fat and dairy and sugar. A typical Japanese meal, they point out, will be vegetable based; flavoured with strips of fish, chicken or beef it might also contain water chestnuts, mangetouts, mung sprouts, pak choi, mustard greens, rice and herbs.
Not only are such vegetables packed with nutrients, but being “water rich” they also have “filling power”, protecting against overeating and obesity.
In particular, they advise, rice is far lower in calorie density than say, bread or pasta, leaving less room for kids to crave junk foods: “Rice is the bedrock of East Asian cooking,” says Doyle. “Once cooked, its high water content gives a feeling of fullness.
“In Japan, rice is eaten in a rhythm – alternating with a little miso [a type of soup], vegetables and fish or meat – so it doesn’t cause the blood sugar to spike.”
It’s not just the type of food but the style of eating which appears to promote good health. The ancient Japanese saying, “He who has his stomach full only 80 per cent will not need a doctor”, sums up the sense of moderation: perhaps it’s not surprising that Japanese people, on average, consume fewer daily calories than other developed countries – 2719 daily compared to the UK’s 3414.
“A tip for Western parents is not to keep treats in the house but enjoy them occasionally, when you are out with your children”Naomi Moriyama
“The Japanese eat less – but they do not feel deprived,” says Doyle. “The style of eating means they feel full and energised.”
Yet as the book makes clear, Japan is a nation in love with healthy, delicious food. Moriyama recounts how her mother Chizuko – a “kitchen goddess” taught her a lifelong pattern of “food joy”. Children are taught, both at school and at home, how food is grown, prepared and ritually eaten – usually with the family – all of which makes for healthy eating patterns.
Sweet treats, crisps and ice cream are not demonised, she says, but with smaller kitchens and less storage space, neither are they kept in large quantities at home, in temptation’s way. “A tip for Western parents is not to keep treats in the house but enjoy them occasionally, when you are out with your children” she says.
The way food is served is also key: each person is given a small bowl and several different dishes – vegetables, rice, miso, fish or meat – are served communally, also in moderately sized dishes. There is no main course as such – just a satisfying variety of textures and tastes in manageable sizes, which people try in relaxed rotation.
Japan’s nationwide school lunch programme – originally intended to feed hungry children in the wake of Japan’s post-war economic devastation – hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years.
Moriyama points out that this makes it easier for children to sample a variety of food – important in the acquisition of healthy eating habits. “Our tradition of communal eating encourages a healthy, relaxed attitude; it’s not a question of a child having to finish everything they are given,” says Moriyama.
Of course, Western parents would find it hard to adopt wholesale the Japanese meal structure, but we could try serving a variety of foods, served in smaller portions: a bowl of soup, one of rice and three side dishes, with a plate of fruit as dessert.
The authors also describe what they call Japan’s “wrap around family lifestyle” – a national structure that supports and guides children towards healthy behaviour. The nationwide school lunch programme – originally intended to feed hungry children in the wake of Japan’s post-war economic devastation – hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years. Healthy dishes are based on locally produced ingredients; there are no vending machines.
There is another basic principle keeping millions of Japanese children healthy: walking to school and back, at all ages
Moriyama and Doyle acknowledge that UK parents can’t control the food their children get at school but they can “build a powerful Japanese-style zone” of healthy behaviours at home, and emulate the Japanese in other ways – encouraging children to get involved in food preparation, eating together as a family and as far as possible offering a fixed choice of healthy foods at home.
There is another basic principle keeping millions of Japanese children healthy: walking to school and back, at all ages. “It means that the recommendation that children engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate to intense exercise is built into their daily lives,” says Doyle.
Unfortunately in the UK, with children no longer guaranteed places at local schools, concerns about traffic and “stranger danger”, walking to school is impossible for many. But Doyle argues, “Surely parents can ensure their kids get one hour a day of free play, instead of screen time?”
Japanese society is not perfect: smoking is still common (although discouraged), as is excessive drinking, and a high salt intake is associated with stroke and stomach cancer. Japan’s suicide rate is also comparatively high – due to financial problems and isolation among Japan’s growing elderly population.
Fast food outlets like Mcdonalds and KFC are booming (although they serve smaller portions than in the West), resulting in increases in BMI and cholesterol. All of which means much needs to be done if Japanese children are to keep pole position. Moriyama admits their son, Brendan loves Western style food, too. “Living in New York he is exposed to pizza, pasta, hamburgers and fries – and I do make all of that, though I try to use healthier ingredients,” she says. “Just yesterday I picked him up from school and gave him a cookie. But as well as chocolate chips, it contained chia seeds, banana, grated apple and even leafy green veg.”