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Why is Japanese cuisine healthy? It’s all about the investment in food education to build awareness of one’s health and nutritional habits.

A Japanese meal set with shio koji salmon, miso soup, rice, and side dishes.

Have you ever wondered why Japanese food is considered healthy? What’s the secret to the Japanese people’s longevity, 87.1 years for women and 81.1 years for men? (compared to 78.8 years and 75.1 years in the U.S. respectively).

Not surprisingly, part of the answer lies in what the Japanese eat and how they learn about nutrition and food education.

Japan Dietary Habits and Food Education

The Japanese traditional meal called Ichiju Sansai (一汁三菜) is a balanced diet of rice, protein (typically fish and tofu), and vegetables, usually eaten three times a day. While the Japanese do eat non-Japanese foods regularly and consume more red meat and dairy products than previous generations, this meal provides the majority of the essential nutrients.

Tsukemono Ichiju Sansai

In terms of education, Japanese children are taught healthy, sustainable eating habits and attitudes about food from childhood. Students learn about different seasonal and local produce and how to cook them from nutrition teachers, among other life skills.

In addition, every public elementary and most middle schools have a school lunch program prepared by certified nutritionists. You may be surprised to learn that students deliver the meals from the school kitchens to the classrooms and serve their fellow classmates.

A rice bowl containing Ume and Shiso Rice served with mackerel and miso soup.

Beyond Japan’s longest average life expectancy in the world, its globally recognized healthy cuisine, and food education program taught at schools is a Japanese philosophy of shokuiku (食育)—”food education.” Shokuiku is an educational philosophy based on a social consciousness to eat well. Embraced by the government, shokuiku programs teach the younger generation the appropriate knowledge of nutrition and food culture.

What’s unique about the Japanese view on nutrition and food education?

Let’s go over some factors that make the Japanese view on nutrition and food education unique. They are:

  • Balanced meal with Ichiju Sansai
  • Ma-go-wa-ya-sa-shi-ii (まごわやさしい)
  • Cooking techniques
  • School programs on food education

We’ll discuss more in detail below.

Balanced Meal with Ichiju Sansai

As you may know already, the Japanese diet is traditionally fish, vegetable, and soy heavy. When meat is involved, it is cooked with other ingredients so that it doesn’t become the centerpiece. (Read more about washoku AKA Japanese cuisine here).

Compared to people in western countries, the Japanese have a low intake of red meat, dairy products, and sweeteners. These foods are thought to be linked to low mortality from cancer, heart diseases, and obesity. (For an analysis about the Japanese diet and nutrition compared to western countries, please read this scientific paper by Nature).

A Zojirushi lunch jar containing steamed rice, gyudon, fruits, and green bean gomaae.

Fish and seafood are said to be the better protein alternative to animal meats as they are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3 fatty acids have many health benefits, including:

  1. Maintaining a healthy heart by lowering blood pressure
  2. Reducing and prevention for heart diseases
  3. Reducing the chance of developing diabetes and combating obesity
A Japanese meal set with shio koji salmon, miso soup, rice, and side dishes.

The traditional meal of “one soup three dishes” called ichiju sansai (一汁三菜) provides a balanced meal of essential nutrients. This consists of a serving of rice (approximately 150 g or 5.3 oz), a bowl of miso soup with vegetables and tofu, two side dishes, and the main protein, usually fish.

In addition, the Japanese often incorporate seasonal produce in the meal. Not only does it tend to be slightly cheaper, they are fresher, tastier, and more nutritious than produce consumed out of season.

Ma-go-wa-ya-sa-shi-ii (まごわやさしい)

To encourage a more plant and seafood-based meal, the phrase ma-go-wa-ya-sa-shi-ii (まごわやさしい) has been in circulation for some time.

It’s an acronym for mame/beans (豆), goma/sesame (胡麻), wakame/seaweed (わかめ), yasai/vegetables (野菜), sakana/fish (魚), shiitake/mushrooms (しいたけ), and imo/potatoes (芋). This phrase also spells out “the grandchild is kind” phonetically.

Magowayasashii food items
ma-go-wa (top), ya-sa-shi-ii (bottom)

Not only is this term catchy, but it’s also basically a call to return to the traditional Japanese meal and dietary intakes.

So what’s all the fuss about these foods?

  • Beans: Also known as “meat of the fields,” beans are high in protein and a bang for your buck. The recommended daily intake is 100-130 g (3.5-4.5 oz) of tofu or 1 packet of natto.
  • Sesame: Includes other nuts such as almond, chestnut, peanuts, and gingko nuts. Nuts are high in protein, minerals, and antioxidant properties.
  • Seaweed: Seaweed such as wakame, hijiki, and nori are high in calcium.
  • Vegetables: Vegetables, especially leafy greens and red and yellow vegetables are full of essential nutrients. The Japanese Ministry of Labor recommends a daily intake of 350 g (12.3 oz) and American CDC recommends 2-3 cups of vegetables a day.
  • Fish: Oily fish such as sardines, mackerel, and anchovies are especially high in essential amino acids and omega-3 fatty acids. These are said to help reduce cholesterol levels.
  • Mushrooms: Mushrooms are available year-round and easily incorporated into any dish. They are especially high in vitamin D, which helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphate in the body.
  • Potatoes: Starchy tubers such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and yams are high in fiber, vitamin C and aid digestion.

Cooking Techniques

Another reason why Japanese food is healthy is because of the cooking techniques. Most dishes are cooked to preserve their natural colors, flavor, and shapes. In addition, the dishes don’t require long cooking and thus the vitamins and minerals don’t seep out.

Saba Misoni

The most popular and traditional Japanese cooking technique is simmering vegetables or fish in liquid (usually dashi or some combination) called Niru (煮る). This cooking method penetrates the food slowly in low heat and helps incorporate the flavors while retaining shape.

Simmered Fried Tofu and Greens

While not eaten frequently, there are deep-fried dishes like tempura and karaage.

Read more about Japanese cooking techniques.

A white ceramic bowl containing simmered taro topped with julienned lemon zest.

Shokuiku

Shokuiku (食育) – “food education,” is a Japanese philosophy and a governmental policy to enable people to acquire knowledge on food to make proper choices. By encouraging healthy eating habits among individuals, it would in turn address diet and lifestyle-related diseases as well as enrich one’s quality of life. Enacted in 2005, the Shokuiku Basic Law is a public health program for all people.

Shokuiku is not a new concept; it was first promoted by Sagen Ishizuka (石塚 左玄; 1850-1909), a military doctor and pharmacist. Educated in both western and eastern medicine, he promoted a diet of foods rich in sodium and potassium. These minerals help the body to absorb and use other nutrients.

His method “Shokuyō” (食養 literally “food for health”) encouraged a diet of whole grains and to eat fewer animal products. He also pushed for the consumption of seasonal and locally grown produce, and to consume meals in moderation. He also echoed the eastern philosophy that food not only sustains life, but also underlies our health and happiness. Not surprisingly, Ishizuka is also known as the founder of the macrobiotic diet.

His concept quickly popularized during the Meiji era (1868-1912). This was a time of rapid westernization when the western diet of wheat, dairy products, and meat was embraced as a way to modernize the country.

Kabocha being cut with a knife on a wooden cutting board.

Incorporate Shokuiku in Your Own Life

So, how can you incorporate the shokuiku principles into your own life? Turns out, you don’t need a government program or nutritional teachers for a healthy lifestyle!

1. Eat until you’re 80% full

Called hara hachibun-me (腹八分目) “80% stomach,” it’s based on the Confucian teaching where you listen to your body and stop eating before you feel full. This practice can prevent overeating and make you more conscious of your food choices. In fact, a Japanese clinical trial on rats found that feeding them until they’re full prolonged their lifespan. Therefore, mindful eating will improve your relationship with food for a pleasurable event you partake in every day.

2. Eat whole foods

Sagen Ishizuka was a fan of brown rice and discouraged the consumption of processed foods. Although processed foods are indeed delicious, they are high in unhealthy fats, added sugar, sodium, and calories. Eating whole foods including the skins and the whole fish instead of fillets will nourish you with protein, fiber, heart-healthy fats, and micronutrients. Eliminating your diet from processed foods is difficult in this modern age, but try to limit your intake.

Rice bowls containing perfectly cooked short grain brown rice.

3. Eat seasonally and locally

Instead of reaching for the same produce available year-round, check out the farmers’ market for fresh local and seasonal fruits and vegetables. You may become more aware of where your food comes from, how it was produced, and what is in season. From juicy tomatoes in the summer, the colorful varieties of apples in the fall, you may become more appreciative of the changing seasons!

Trays of colorful vegetables.

4. Enjoy your meal with good company

While a grab-and-go meal is a convenient method of filling up, it does diminish the pleasure of eating. Sharing meals with family and friends builds camaraderie and can help diversify your food offerings. As Aristotle said, “Man is by nature, is a social animal.”

How to Host a Japanese-Themed Party | Easy Japanese Recipes at JustOneCookbook.com

Food Education at Schools

Your parents may have taught you to eat your vegetables, but what does it mean to teach children how to eat well?

Rather than teaching children through textbook reading and lectures, Japanese schools involve the students. Most Japanese schools teach home economics called katei-ka (家庭科) from elementary through high school years. Not only do the students learn how to cook, they learn about the nutritional elements in food, public health, the various components that make an ichiju sansai meal, dining etiquette, and the different seasonal and local produce and foods.

Kyushoku School Meals

Many preschools, elementary and middle schools across Japan serve school meals called kyushoku (給食), which dates back to 1889. It started off as a way to combat malnutrition among children, which was a severe problem at the time. An elementary school in Yamagata prefecture served the first kyushoku of onigiri, grilled fish and tsukemono. Soon after, many schools also started serving kyushoku to their students as well.

staff serving food into lunch trays

It wasn’t until after World War II when kyushoku really took off. The Japanese government adapted kyushoku as a national program to not only serve nutritious meals but as an opportunity to teach shokuiku to the students.

These meals resemble the everyday meal served at the home, loosely based on the ichiju sansai meal. It tends to be washoku based, but non-Japanese foods such as pasta, bread, and cuisines such as Chinese, Korean and Italian dishes are common as well.

Japanese school lunch with rice, main dish, and side dish

Most meals are made in-house at the school cafeteria, although some schools outsource the cooking to larger kyushoku centers. These meals are planned out and executed by certified nutritionists. Kyushoku offers a variety of fresh and local produce to provide a nutritious and delicious meal for the hungry students.

Nutrition Education

You may be surprised to learn that kyushoku is carried from the school cafeteria to the classroom and served by students themselves! Not only does this activity involve the students, but also gives them a sense of responsibility and communal duty. In addition, they learn proper hygienic practices, basic food safety, and clean up.

It’s a unique opportunity where students learn both soft and hard skills. Through kyushoku and kateika, students become both consumers and participants in the complex food system, equipped with an understanding of dietary guidelines.

Highlighting the importance of nutrition and food education among the younger generation is nothing revolutionary. Many eastern philosophies have long recognized that food’s significance goes beyond just sustenance. Eating is a communal activity and also an opportunity to learn about the seasonal offerings and the impact food has on the body.

A tray containing 3 bowls of baby food for age 12-18 months.

My Personal Experience with Shoku-iku

Growing up in Japan, I was somewhat familiar with the concepts of Shokuiku. Throughout childhood, I preferred Japanese foods anyways, like nimono and grilled fish. When I lived in the States for high school and college, I tried to cook the familiar comfort foods I grew up with. But the cooking was more to connect to my heritage living in an environment as a minority. It also was a social activity with friends, and not connected to being in good health.

As a working adult back in Japan, my life was active and busy. I didn’t have the time to think out the nutritional balance of my daily meals or research where the produce came from. Food was just fuel and a source of entertainment. While I was loosely aware of healthy foods, I didn’t think much about the impact it had on my body.

Teaching My Daughter About Food

After I had my daughter in 2019, I started cooking baby food, followed by meals the family could enjoy. It was then that I was able to reflect on what values I wish to impart to her. While I cannot always choose organic or local produce, avoid processed foods and cook everything from scratch, I try to build a healthy foundation around food so that she would be equipped to make her own decisions in the future.

For example, we expose her to Japanese food and cultural events around food. We familiarize her with the ichiju sansai set up, go grocery shopping together and point out the produce she would later consume. We also read books about seasonal vegetables and fruits, and get plenty of exercize. Although incremental, I try to incorporate shokuiku principles that are easy to integrate into our lives without it becoming a bothersome chore.

Tonjiru (Pork and Vegetable Soup) served with grilled salmon, steamed rice, and vegetable side dishes.

Healthy Recipes to Cook at Home

Stumped for ideas? Cooking nutritious and healthy meals doesn’t have to be plain and boring, it can be flavorful and fun! Here are some recipe roundups to get you started.

How do you incorporate healthy eating habits for yourself or your family, and what foods are you eating more/less of? Do you cook Japanese food or plan out an ichiju sansai meal? Please share in the comment box below!


Sources:

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