Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Tips and Traps of the Japanese Diet

The Japanese and other Asians are often held up as models of carb-eating skinnies. Should we adopt a traditional Japanese diet, then? Naomi Moriyama, author of Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat(1) thinks so. "There is a land...where forty-year-old women look like they are twenty. It is a land where women enjoy some of the world's most delicious food, yet they have obesity rates of only three percent...The country is Japan." Moriyama goes on to describe her mother's cooking, which she says helped her and her husband slim down.

If you've tried to lose weight on healthy whole grains, good carbs, exercise, and following standard nutritional advice, a traditional Japanese diet won't work for you--because that's what it's all about. In fact, the book specifically says that the diet is similar to USDA guidelines. (And in an unintentionally ironic passage, Moriyama complains that she couldn't exercise off even "an ounce" of the 25 pounds she gained when she first lived in the U.S., yet on the next page credits, in part, "the walking-intensive Tokyo lifestyle" for losing the same 25 pounds. Read this book as an exercise in testing your critical thinking.)

So why does a traditional Japanese diet work for the Japanese?

High nutrient intake. "The classic Japanese home-cooked meal is a piece of grilled fish, a bowl of rice, simmered vegetables, a serving of miso soup, sliced fruit for dessert, and a cup of hot green tea," says Moriyama. Lots of nutrients there, with no empty calories and a low level of mineral-blocking phytic acid in the rice.(2) Additionally, seaweed and natto, two other traditional Japanese foods, are high in iodine(3) and vitamin K2.(4) In Why We Get Fat,(5) Gary Taubes presents a body of evidence from the 1920s and 1930s, largely forgotten now, that obesity is a disease of malnutrition.

No wheat. Wheat is an appetite stimulant: people who go on a gluten-free diet tend to reduce their food intake by 350 to 450 calories per day.(6). "In [a Columbia University study of 369 people with celiac disease]," writes Dr. William Davis in Wheat Belly, "wheat elimination cut the frequency of obesity in half within a year, with more than 50% of the participants with a starting BMI in the overweight range of 25 to 29.9 losing an average of 26 pounds." (7).

Little or No dairy. Certain dairy products induce an insulin spike, which can lead to fat storage. Paleo researcher Loren Cordain writes in The Paleo Answer, "About five to ten years ago, however, experiments from our laboratory and others unexpectedly revealed that low-glycemic dairy foods paradoxically caused huge rises in blood insulin levels....despite their low-glycemic indices, dairy foods maintain high insulin responses similar to white bread."(8).

Don't Get Full. "Eat until you are 80% full," Moriyama instructs us (three times). "The funny thing is, though," she adds, "I rarely hear any Japanese complaining about how hungry they are!" That's cute, but you can't be hungry and not hungry at the same time.

Fewer calories. According to this chart(9), the Japanese eat 2,768 calories per day per capita v. 3,754 for Americans. However, Japan's aging population may have something to do with this: the median age there is 45, making it the world's "grayest" society. (10) (Young, growing people tend to eat more than their parents and grandparents.) And note that Australia, at 3135 calories per capita per day, has an obesity rate of 56%.(11). Calories count, but they're not everything.

A 1,200-Year History of Enforced Pescatarianism. Tadishi Ono and Harris Salat write in The Japanese Grill, 
Starting around the year 675 A.D., the Japanese emperor began prohibiting the consumption of meat on religious grounds...The ban started with the clergy, then spread to the general population, who avoided most animals (seafood was allowed and didn't fall under the taboo). Hunters deep in the countryside, though, continued to bag game (boar was euphemistically called "mountain whale," perhaps to make it more palatable), and certain "medicine eating" of meat was accepted. All this changed in the mid-nineteenth century, when Japan reopened to the world after 300 years of isolation."(12)
Could this have winnowed out members of the population who needed a meaty, high-fat diet?

As for looking younger...Women from the Far East have more fat on their faces, giving them a younger appearance. (So do the women in my family, even though we're not Asian, and we also tend to look younger--at least, those of us who, like the vast majority of Japanese women, don't smoke.) Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue has another theory: vitamin K2. (Remember the natto? It's so rich in K2 that some supplements are derived from it.) She writes in Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox,
"[Vitamin K2] fights skin aging and the emergence of wrinkles by protecting the elasticity of the skin in the exact same way it safeguards the elasticity of arteries and veins." Further, "...even among Asian cities, female residents of Tokyo have the least visible signs of aging compared with their age-matched counterparts living in Shanghai and Bangkok. Granted, many Japanese ladies religiously avoid sun exposure...That being said, the inter-Asian groups are comparable for many other diet and lifestyle factors save one: the consumption of natto. Tokyoites commonly enjoy the pungent, fermented soybeans as a breakfast food, and they have the high levels of menaquinone [K2] to prove it.(13)
If you can't gag down natto, an excellent source of K2 is hard cheese. And it isn't as insulinogenic as milk or whey.(14) (Or you can just take MK-7 supplements, says Rheaume-Bleue.)

Some parts of the Japanese diet and lifestyle are healthful: after all, they're some of the longest-lived people around. Avoiding wheat, sugar and (possibly) milk are good; so are eating nutritious foods and taking exercise. As for shopping in a Japanese grocery, I've been to one or two, and literally everything but the tea bags was laced with some combination of wheat, sugar, and chemically extracted seed oils.

Can most of us adopt a regimen of 60% carbohydrate, whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, and mild hunger? That's what the USDA has been preaching for nearly 40 years.

  1. Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat by Naomi Moriyama. Bantam Dell, 2005.
  2. "Living with Phytic Acid" by Ramiel Nagal. March 6, 2010.  Weston A. Price Foundation website.
  3. "Sun, Fish and Seaweed" by Dr. William Davis, August 8, 2009. Heart Scan Blog.
  4. "Food Sources of Vitamin K2" by Dr. William Davis, December 27, 2007. Heart Scan Blog.
  5. Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes. Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.
  6. Wheat Belly by William Davis, M.D. p. 68. Rodale, 2011. 
  7. Ibid, p. 66.
  8. The Paleo Answer by Loren Cordain, Ph.D., Chapter 5, section on Milk, Insulin Resistance and the Metabolic Syndrome, Kindle location 1852. John Wiley & Sons, 2012.
  9. Daily Caloric Intake per Capita, kcal.
  10. The Wilson Quarterly, "Japan Shrinks"  by Nicholas Eberstadt. April 1, 2012.
  11. Australian Bureau of Statistics, 4125.0, January 2012.
  12. The Japanese Grill by Tadashi Ono and Harris Salat, p. 2. Random House, 2011.
  13. Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox by Dr. Kate Rheaume-Bleue, Chapter 4, section on Vitamin K2 for Wrinkle Prevention, John Wiley & Sons Canada, 2012. Kindle location 1988.
  14. "Glycemia and insulinemia in healthy subjects after lactose-equivalent meals of milk and other food proteins: the role of plasma amino acids and incretins," (Table 3) by Mikael Nilsson, Marianne Stenberg, Anders H Frid, Jens J Holst and Inger ME Björck, American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2004.


tess said...

interesting post! from a dietary point of view, the grass frequently looks greener on the other side of the cultural fence -- it's instructive to hear some of the caveats!

Lori Miller said...

The devil is in the details--but hardly anyone ever mentions anything but the rice.

K2 said...

Isn't it rice good for the body? Think I'm gonna try this traditional Japanese diet. :P

Lori Miller said...

You know rice turns into sugar once you eat it, right?