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Seven Reasons Why the Japanese May Have the World's Healthiest Diet

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By Edited Apr 21, 2016 2 8

The typical North American diet is calorie rich and nutrient poor. It is also loaded with fat, salt, sugar and suspicious food additives. It is no wonder that North Americans are advised to follow the eating habits of other cultures in order to improve their health.


Fast Food
Some people recommend the red wine and olive oil of the Mediterannean diet or the spartan, practicaly vegan Mount Athos diet of Greek Orthodox monks. Others tout the benefits of the Paleolithic diet which does not contain agricultural products such as grain or dairy. Vegetarian or vegan diets from the Indian subcontinent or a vegetable rich Chinese diet are also said to be beneficial.  But the healthiest diet in the world may well be the traditional Japanese diet.

This diet is thought to be one of the reasons that people in Japan are blessed with enviable health. Life expectancy in Japan is the highest in the world. According to the World Health Organization, Japanese life expectancy in 2009 was 86.4 for women and 79.6 for men. In comparison, average life expectancy in the U.S. is 76 for men and 81 for women. Japan is also the world’s slimmest developed nation with an average Body Mass Index of 3.2 percent compared with 30.6 percent in the US. While genetics and the Japanese universal health care system are both important factors, these impressive statistics also reflect the benefits of a unique combination of beneficial foods found in the traditional Japanese diet.

1. Rice

The traditional Japanese staple is plain, steamed rice which is eaten at every meal. An indication of the importance of rice to Japanese cuisine can be seen in the Japanese words for breakfast, lunch and dinner. asagohan, hirugohan and bangohan, which translate into English as "morning rice," "day rice" and "evening rice."

Ceramic Bowl Full of White Rice

Plain steamed rice without added oil or sauce not only fills without fattening but also contains essential amino acids, thiamine (B1) and manganese, which is known to support the immune system.

2. Soy

Soybeans are an excellent source of high quality, cholesterol-free protein, polyunsaturated fats and essential minerals including calcium, iron and zinc.

Edamame Beans


Soy rich foods are known to have several benefits. They can help to prevent breast cancer, control blood pressure, improve heart health and regulate cholesterol levels. The Japanese eat soy in various forms. They regularly consume miso soup, which is made from fermented soy beans. Tofu or bean curd is used as an ingredient in miso soup and many other dishes such as this beautifully presented "silken tofu" .


Japanese Style Silken Tofu


Edamame or boiled green soy beans are a popular snack. Here is a short video which shows how to prepare and eat this tasty and nutritious treat.

One soy product which is believed to have particular health benefits and which is unique to Japan is natto, a fermented bean product which is high in protein and vitamins E and B2. Natto is also high in vitamin K which helps to regulate bone health and calcium levels in the body, and may even reduce the risk of cancer. Some studies indicate that nattokinase, a substance found only in natto, may also ward off Alzheimer's disease and contribute to the prevention of heart attacks, blood clots and strokes.

3. Fish

The Japanese eat almost three times as much fish as Americans. Between 2005 and 2008 they ate 135.5 pounds per capita compared with consumption of 53.3 pounds per capita in the United States. They eat fish every day and are particularly fond of fatty fish such as salmon and herring, which they often enjoy raw as sashimi. Fatty fish is an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids which have been found to protect against atherosclerosis, heart attacks and strokes by preventing the build up of  plaque in the arteries.

Typical Japanese Sashimi Set

While the rates of high cholesterol, high blood pressure and type two diabetes among Japanese men are similar to those in the U.S. and even though Japanese men are often heavy smokers, their rate of atherosclerosis is less than half that of their U.S. counterparts. WebMD refers to this as "the Japanese paradox" and suggests it may be due to the high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids present in the blood of Japanese men thanks to their seafood rich diet. In support of this opinion they cite a study which found the blood Omega-3 levels of Japanese men in their forties to be 45 percent higher than that of Japanese men living in the U.S. and 80% higher than that of Caucasian U.S. males.

4. Vegetables

The vitamins, minerals and fiber provided by vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet. While many North Americans find it difficult to eat the four to tens daily servings of vegetables recommended by nutritionists, the Japanese eat a variety of vegetables with every meal.  These are all fresh rather than canned or frozen and the cooking methods they use are generally steaming, stir frying or simmering in broth, all of which help to preserve valuable nutrients.


Goma-ae salad

The Japanese eat a wide variety of vegetables some of which such as bitter melon or shitake mushrooms, are believed to have particular health benefits.

Want to Learn More About Japanese Cuisine?

This Cookbook is a Great Place to Start.

5. Seaweed

Seaweed is an excellent source of vitamins A, C, B6 and B12 as well as a variety of minerals including iron, zinc, calcium and selenium. It is a particularly rich source of iodine and Omega-3 fatty acids. Several types of seaweed are used in Japanese cuisine. Nori is used for sushi wrappers, wakame is used in miso soup, and konbu is used to make dashi, the basic Japanese soup stock.




6. Green Tea

Green tea is an integral part of Japanese culture. It is not only offered as a special drink for honored guests at formal tea ceremonies but is also enjoyed every day with ordinary meals or snacks.

Japanese Green Tea

In contrast to black tea, green tea is made from unfermented leaves. As a result it contains much higher levels of polyphenols, powerful anti-oxidants which are believed to slow the aging process and prevent cancer and heart disease. Green tea has been the focus of a great deal of scientific inquiry, and various studies suggest that it can lower harmful cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, tooth decay, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and some forms of cancer.

 7. Avoided Food

Several foods known to create health problems in Europe and North America are absent from the traditional Japanese diet.

The Japanese use very little refined sugar and tend to avoid rich, fattening dessert. Because historically their staple foods were rice and noodles, they used to eat very little bread. Also, since most of their protein comes from fish or soy they eat very little red meat or dairy products, so their intake of saturated fat from animal products is little to none.

Unfortunately, many Japanese are abandoning their traditional diet in favor of less healthy and more fattening foreign alternatives. They are consuming more refined sugar, bread and baked goods, meat and dairy products. Regrettably, their health is likely to suffer as a result.



Aug 17, 2015 1:33pm
I've always been fascinated by by Japanese cuisine and culture. When I was first introduced to elements of Japanese culture, one of the things I started to enjoy more was rice. It tastes a lot better plain as opposed to adding butter and such.

Nutrient rich foods are fairly expensive unless you manage to get them during sales when they become more affordable. Its been a while since I've had edamame; my mom can cook it better than I can. Amazing article; thanks for sharing.

Question: Is there a particular rice type (long/short grain) that is more beneficial to eat?
Aug 17, 2015 3:13pm
I'm glad you enjoyed the article, Browna86. Yes, I agree about cost. Fish seems to have got really expensive recently, even here on the Pacific coast where it used to be a bargain.

I don't think the length of the grain makes any difference. Some rice is stickier than others, and sushi rice is particularly sticky because it needs to bind together. Brown rice is a power house of nutrients, but it also takes such a long time to cook that most people don't find it convenient.
Aug 18, 2015 3:33pm
Great article, I always knew there was something about their diet that was more healthy.
Aug 18, 2015 4:02pm
Thanks for the positive feedback, Gospel.
Aug 18, 2015 9:36pm
I really enjoyed your article. It was easy to read and very informative! Your photos are so good - do you take them yourselves or do you use a site?
Aug 18, 2015 10:31pm
I'm glad you liked the article, Holly. Sometimes I use my own photos, but these are all public domain images from Wikimedia.
Aug 31, 2015 4:56am
Nice article. A pity most people are terrified of soya these days. But fermented soy like Miso, soy sauce and temp-eh are brilliant.
Aug 31, 2015 10:03am
A lot of people here in North America are concerned about soy products here because of the way they are produced. North American soy is genetically modified, sprayed with herbicide and pesticide, and highly processed. It is converted into meal for animal feed and oil for use in cooking or as an ingredient is a variety of food products from margarine to baby food, and this processed soy in these food products is a serious allergen for some people.

These soy products are entirely different to less processed soy products like miso, soy sauce etc.

Thanks for stopping by, Yindee
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