“Surely Japanese food is healthy! It’s got plenty of rice and fish. Their food is also not as fatty as hamburgers and pizza, right? The simple fact that Japanese people have a longer life expectancy proves that their food is much healthier. So, what are you talking about?”. This is something I could imagine someone thinking when reading this title.
It’s objectively true that the Japanese live longer and might consume a lot of rice and fish. But does that really mean that Japanese food is healthier than food in the West?
The Unhealthy Side of Japanese Food
First of all, it’s false to assume that all Japanese cuisine has to offer is rice and fish. Of course, Japan is an island state. Therefore, there is a bigger focus on seafood. One of Japan’s most well-known dishes is Sushi; but it’s far from its only dish. You only need to look at the other popular Japanese dish: Ramen. There's no rice to be seen here. Also, the most common ramen styles don’t focus on a fishy taste either.
The discussion regarding how healthy Ramen is is a bit controversial actually. Ramen noodles are made of wheat flour and are thus calorie-heavy while not offering many nutrients. But the broth can be nutritious, as some restaurants use vegetables to prepare it. Fact is: It depends on the style and restaurant if Ramen is healthy or not. It certainly can be viewed as fast-food (e.g., Ichiran), but then there are also styles like Shio (salt-seasoned) which have much less calories.
Japan’s fried cuisine is full of examples for more unhealthy dishes though: Tonkatsu, Takoyaki, Tempura, Karaage (deep fried chicken) from the local FamilyMart - you name it! I don’t need to tell you why deep-fried dishes are unhealthy. My point is that these types of dishes exist in Japan as well. Popular Japanese snacks like the Harajuku crepes and any type of sweet bread like Melon Pan are what you expect of sweet snacks: there’s a lot of sugar in them.
Also, I haven’t even touched upon yōshoku (洋食) – basically Japan’s version of Western food. Examples are Kare Raisu (カレーライス), Hambagu (ハンバーグ) and Naporitan (ナポリタン). So, as you can see, Japan has its unhealthy side as well.
The Healthy Side of Japanese Food
Now then, is Japanese food healthy at all? Ignoring discussions about how healthy certain ingredients like rice and soybeans are – the answer is "Yes"! A traditional Japanese diet (washoku, 和食) involves steaming ingredients. So there's little to no oil. Soybean based dishes like dashi, natto, edamame and miso are prevalent in this diet as well. Lastly, vegetables like seaweed, radish and cabbage lead to an overall balanced meal. Teishoku (set meals) and Bento boxes are examples of how to combine many of these smaller dishes into one bigger meal.
Yet, you might have already noticed: It’s more about the how than the what. By that I mean, many consider Japanese cuisine healthy mainly because of how Japanese people eat rather than what they eat. Nowadays, younger people tend to not follow a traditional washoku diet like the older generations did. Washoku can be time consuming, expensive and requires a certain degree of cooking skill. What people look for most of the time is a convenient and easy-to-prepare meal (like instant ramen). The following three reasons are why a traditional Japanese diet can be so difficult to implement:
1) Small portions
Due to the popular Japanese belief that less is more, portions are small. “Less” also means that there are fewer condiments and additional ingredients used. Instead, the highlight is the natural taste and flavor of the food. This in itself is not "difficult to implement" of course. But highlighting the natural taste of a dish requires a decent cooking skill and smaller portions are not exactly filling. Something some Japanese people live by is hara hachi bu (腹八分) or “only eat until you are 80% full”. During a lunch break on a stressful workday, this approach might not be the best way to energise yourself. It all goes to say that Japanese sizes are much smaller than Western ones – in all aspects!
2) Fresh ingredients
There is a big emphasis on using fresh and organic ingredients in Japan. Like mentioned before, the natural flavor of an ingredient is the core focus. So, Japanese cuisine puts a great emphasis on sourcing the right ingredients. Be it A5 Wagyu beef or a certain prefecture’s locally grown rice; it matters where exactly an ingredient comes from. That’s also why fruit can cost so much in a Japanese supermarket. In the West, we rely much more on processed food like frozen pizza or canned tuna.
3) Wide variety
I already touched upon it, but in a traditional Japanese diet, it’s all about offering a wide variety of ingredients to create a sense of harmony. In Germany, we typically just eat meat, potatoes and some type of vegetable like beans or carrots as a dish and that's it. However, in Japan the concept of Ichiju Sansai (一汁三菜) or “One soup, three dishes” is much more common. It mainly refers to how to arrange teishoku: More dishes, smaller sizes. Seasonality plays a big part here as well. Again, here in Germany, we really just eat our go-to veggies all year long. In Japan, depending on which season, vegetables and fruits served change. Basically, with a greater variety of dishes, you take in more varied nutrients as well.
Western vs. Japanese Diets
The way we judge and go about a diet is quite different from Japan’s perception of a diet. Maybe that’s why there is so much discourse about how healthy Japanese cuisine is. For example, Western diets focus much more on the details: Nutrients, calories, proteins – we tend to focus on very specific components of a meal. Japanese diets are much broader and very much concern themselves with the balance of ingredients.
Let’s take the example of Ramen again: A topic that often gets brought up is the sodium level. In Japan, however, there's little concern as it is simply balanced out by another ingredient/dish in their diet. Instead, Western diets aim to cut out the non-desired nutrients. While this helps make specific changes, it can cause a fixation with calculating one’s every meal.
Additionally, ingredients are selected to help with digestion. For example, cabbage is a popular side dish for Tonkatsu to help digest this greasy dish. That’s also why fermented dishes are so popular as they contain good bacteria helping with digestion as well. In a similar vein, you usually aren’t served a lot of water with a meal as it’s believed that it actually hinders digestion. This is another big difference to Western countries where the main way of staying hydrated is water. In Japan, the dishes themselves contain more water instead by including vegetables with higher water content, for example.
So, is Japanese Food Healthy?
All in all, there are both healthy and unhealthy dishes in Japanese cuisine. Just because it is Japanese, doesn't mean it's automatically healthy. This goes for any other cuisine as well. We would unnecessarily group together a huge variety of dishes, ingredients, preparation methods and styles that are very different from each other. The traditional Japanese diet is simply about balancing all of these exciting facets of its cuisine.
If you'd like to get to know all these facets of Japanese cuisine, why not stay tuned for our upcoming articles? If you want to explore Japan's cuisine yourself, we could help you design an itinerary the next time you visit Tokyo!