Healthy Japanese Diet
Japanese is one of the healthiest and long lived nations in the world, and it’s their healthy diet that’s thought to be largely responsible. Compared with others, they eat roughly twice the amount of cereals, less than one fifth the amount of meat, and only a negligible amount of dairy products. There’s also much more emphasis on fish, and the intake of saturated fats from animal sources is low.
One of the healthiest aspects of the Japanese diet is their high reliance on starchy food, such rice and noodles. Gram for gram, carbohydrates provide less than half the calories of fat. And because fattier items, such as fried or battered foods, take second place in the Japanese diet, the overall balance is much healthier.
Although the Japanese and the British both live on islands, surrounded by sea, statistics show that the Japanese eat three times more fish and seafood than the British, with raw or cooked oily fish featuring at most meals. Fish supplies beneficial polyunsaturated fats known as EPA and DHA which belong to the omega-3 family. Studies show that these fats help to reduce the ‘stickiness’ of the blood, regulate blood pressure and ease any inflammation of the joints.
One way to enjoy the classic Japanese duo of fish and rice is to eat more sushi. Sushi bars are springing up all over the place, and you can now buy it in many food outlets as an alternative to lunch time sandwiches. The term ‘sushi’ actually refers specifically to sticky balls of vinegared rice, but it’s usually used as a catch-all word for all types of rice topped with raw or cooked fish, or wrapped in seaweed, with a fish or vegetable center.
The main point is that sushi is very nutritious and low in fat. The rice wine vinegar used to bind sushi rice also appears to add nutritional benefits. Tests carried out by Japanese universities have found that eating rice wine vinegar with food increases the amount of calcium absorbed – possibly helping to protect bones in later life.
Scientists believe that the Japanese fondness for seaweed is another reason they have a better health record than Western populations. Ingredients in seaweed, known as alginates, can bind heavy metal toxins, such as lead and cadmium in the intestines, and remove them from the body.
Seaweed is also rich in iodine and selenium – both minerals which help to maintain a healthy metabolism through their affect on the thyroid gland. Vegans in particular, can benefit, as they don’t get iodine from dairy sources such as milk. Some seaweeds also contain carotenoids, which are thought to protect against the action of free radicals, that can contribute to heart disease, cancer and aging.
Another important ingredient in Japanese cooking is soy, and nutrition experts are increasingly convinced that it may be partly responsible for the significantly lower rate of breast cancer found in the far east.
Soy beans contain naturally high levels of substances called isoflavones – part of a family known as phyto-estrogens. It is thought that isoflavones may minimize the risk of certain tumors developing.
In other tissues, such as the bones and arteries, isoflavones are thought to increase the beneficial effect of estrogen. This could explain why many Japanese women don’t experience the menopausal hot flushes and osteoporosis, that are so common in the west.
Word Of Caution
Not all aspects of the Japanese diet are quite as healthy however. Japanese rates of stomach cancer are much higher than other countries, and this is thought to be down to their regular consumption of soy sauce and pickled food. Both of these contain high levels of salt which can irritate the stomach lining. Moreover, some types of Japanese pickle may also contain traces of carcinogens.
The message is that if you like soy sauce, use it sparingly. Instead of dipping the absorbent rice part of sushi, turn it upside down and dunk the fish. Also go easy on additions such as pickled ginger, which are meant as a refreshment for the palate, not as a main part of the meal. Drinking orange juice, which is rich in vitamin C, will also help protect your stomach against any ill effects.