Japanese cuisine is kind to American waistlines
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As our collective girth keeps growing, some experts suggest we take a cue from other cultures to control our weight.
Maybe you think that means eating like the French, but that's so last year. Now it's all about Japan.
This newfound diet fame is being flamed by several books, including "Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat" by Naomi Moriyama, who readily admits taking inspiration from the popular French-themed book, and "Japanese Light: Heart-Friendly, Age-Defying Recipes from the World's Healthiest Cuisine" by Kimiko Barber, author of the well-regarded cookbook, "The Japanese Kitchen."
It's true that Japan has one of the world's lowest obesity rates. Only 3 percent of Japanese women are obese, compared to 13 percent in France and 33 percent in the U.S., according to the International Association for the Study of Obesity.
The Japanese also are global longevity champs, particularly the people of Okinawa -- home to the world's largest population of centenarians. Dr. Bradley Willcox, co-author of "The Okinawa Diet Plan," has been conducting a 25-year investigation of this long-living population.
Compared to the way we eat in America, the Japanese diet is much lower in calories -- primarily due to the dominance of high-water, high-fiber and low-fat foods, Dr. Willcox noted via e-mail from Japan.
The Japanese achieve this "low calorie-dense diet" by eating a tremendous amount of plant foods, he said, particularly vegetables, which pack the diet with disease-fighting antioxidants and other phytonutrients, such as flavonoids.
Instead of french fries -- the most popular vegetable in the United States -- the Japanese eat a wide range of veggies, especially those in the cabbage family, including broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy and kale. These cruciferous vegetables, named for their cross-like petals, contain substances that may protect against cancer.
Ms. Moriyama writes about aspects of the Japanese diet that may be linked to lower rates of heart disease. The Japanese eat more fish than red meat, which keeps their diets low in saturated fat and rich in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
They avoid trans fat (and a ton of extra calories) by eating fruit at the end of their meals instead of cookies, cakes and pies. Instead of super-sized sodas, the Japanese regularly drink antioxidant-rich green tea, which may offer heart-health benefits.
Despite the growing buzz over the Japanese diet, there are a few drawbacks, said dietitian Lilian Cheung, a nutrition lecturer at the Harvard School of Public Health.
"Once you go beyond the surface there are some concerns," she said.
For starters, the traditional Japanese diet is too high in sodium -- contributed by the heavy consumption of soy sauce, salted dried fish, miso and pickled vegetables (although salt intake is lower on the islands of Okinawa).
Ms. Cheung also is troubled by the abundance of white rice with nary a whole grain in sight. This high-carb diet combined with very little fat is not recommended because the large glycemic load could increase the risk of type 2 diabetes, particularly for overweight individuals, she said.
Although this pattern of eating was not affecting the Japanese decades ago because their lifestyle was more active, Ms. Cheung said it's now starting to be a problem as residents become more sedentary and weight is creeping up.
Even so, there are a few lessons we can learn from the land of the rising sun:
Stop before you're stuffed. The Japanese practice a concept called "hara hachi bunme," which means eating until you are 80 percent full, explains Ms. Moriyama in her book. They also tend to eat more slowly than we do. Both are smart strategies to help control calories.
Eat with your eyes. Japanese home cooks take great pride in the visual presentation of meals. They believe food must stimulate all five senses, including sight, Ms. Barber said. Enjoying the beauty of food may help you slow down to savor every bite, which means eating less.
Change your attitude. The Japanese view food as pleasure, while Americans tend to worry about food or associate it with guilt. Even the official dietary guidelines of Japan promote the pleasurable part of eating, Ms. Cheung said. "Enjoy your meals" is first on the list. We don't even address enjoyment in our guidelines.
Pare back portions. The Japanese eat much smaller portions and serve them on small, decorative dishes. Often foods are divided into individual plates and bowls instead of one big plate. Studies show larger plates translate into larger portions and more food consumed.
Savor your sweets. They don't deny themselves desserts in Japan. In fact, they love sweets. But they tend to be satisfied with a bite-size morsel instead of jumbo chocolate-chunk cookies or triple-layer cakes.
Keep it colorful. Ms. Barber described the go shiki principle that says every meal needs five colors: white, red, yellow, green and black (including dark purple and brown). That's a good policy to help achieve a well-balanced and nutrient-rich meal.
Use meat as a garnish. Meat rarely plays the starring role at mealtime; vegetables, noodles and rice have those honors. The liberal use of soy (primarily tofu) instead of meat also keeps saturated fat low.
Eat more soup. The Japanese frequently eat broth-based soups chock-full of vegetables.
First Published April 18, 2007 6:14 pm