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What do YOU think Wednesdays III - Japanese Eating Habits

Posted Jan 27 2010 8:29am
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! :)
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