Why is the Japanese diet so healthy?

Is a diet of fish, veg and fermented food responsible for Japan's impressive health and longevity stats? Discover the benefits of traditional Japanese food.

Why is the Japanese diet so healthy?

The Japanese have long been revered and studied for their long life expectancy, which is higher than almost anywhere else in the world. So why is the traditional Japanese diet so healthy, and what do they eat?

What are the benefits of the traditional Japanese diet?

The traditional Japanese diet is largely fresh and unprocessed, with very little refined foods or sugar.

A study by the British Medical Journal found that those who stuck to closer to the Japanese dietary guidelines – a diet high in grains and vegetables, with moderate amounts of animal products and soy but minimal dairy and fruit – had a reduced risk of dying early from heart disease or stroke. As their diet is traditionally high in soy and fish this may also play a significant role in reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. The Japanese also have the lowest rates of obesity amongst men and women as well as long life expectancy. 

Okinawa, in southernmost Japan, has the highest number of centenarians in the world as well as the lowest risk of age-related diseases (for example diabetes, cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s). This has partly been attributed to their traditional Japanese diet, which is low in calories and saturated fat yet high in nutrients, especially phytonutrients such as antioxidants and flavonoids, found in different coloured vegetables. This also includes phytoestrogens, or plant-based oestrogens, that may help protect against hormone-dependent cancers, such as breast cancer. The diet of the Okinawan people has been little influenced by the dietary changes influenced by western culture, which have been seen in more urban Japan.

What is the traditional Japanese diet?

The traditional Japanese diet isn’t that dissimilar to a traditional Chinese diet, with rice, cooked and pickled vegetables, fish and meat being staple choices. However, because Japan is actually a group of islands (all 6,582 of them), its residents consume a lot more fish compared to other Asian countries. They also eat raw fish in sushi and sashimi, plus a lot of pickled, fermented and smoked foods.

Soya beans, usually in the form of tofu or fresh edamame, are another key part of the Japanese diet, along with other beans such as aduki. Increasingly, fermented foods are being shown to support a healthy digestive system. Fermented soy bean products such as miso and natto are staples of the Japanese diet. Natto is traditionally consumed at breakfast and has a probiotic action that has been shown to help treat IBD and may help blood clotting.

The Japanese also consume a wide variety of land and sea vegetables such as seaweed, which is packed full of health-boosting minerals, and may help to reduce blood pressure. Fruit is often consumed with breakfast or as a dessert, especially Fuji apples, tangerines and persimmons.

Alongside their diet, the Japanese are big fans of green tea – in particular matcha tea, which is fast gaining popularity in the UK. Matcha, a stone-ground powdered green tea, is most valued for its high antioxidant compounds known as catechins, which have been linked to fighting cancer, viruses and heart disease.

Which healthy eating behaviours are part of traditional Japanese culture?

Traditionally, the Japanese tend to have a healthy attitude to food and eating. They have a saying, “hara hachi bu”, which means to eat until you are 80% full, and it's not uncommon to teach it to children from a young age.

The way the Japanese serve their food is also key. Rather than having one large plate, they often eat from a small bowl and several different dishes, usually a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso, some fish or meat and then two or three vegetables dishes, often served communally and eaten in rotation. The Japanese are also strong believers in ‘flexible restraint’ when it comes to treats and snacks, enjoying them from time to time but in smaller portions.

Japanese recipe inspiration...

Miso chicken and rice soup
Japanese salmon and avocado rice
Teriyaki noodle broth
Soba noodle and edamame salad with grilled tofu
Japanese salad with ginger soy dressing
Miso marinated salmon
Miso brown rice and chicken salad
Japanese-style brown rice

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This article was updated on 11th February 2020 by Kerry Torrens.

Nicola Shubrook is a nutritional therapist and works with both private clients and the corporate sector. She is an accredited member of the British Association for Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT) and the Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC). Find out more at urbanwellness.co.uk.

Kerry Torrens BSc. (Hons) PgCert MBANT is a Registered Nutritionist with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.

All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other healthcare professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local healthcare provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

Comments, questions and tips

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12th Jul, 2017
very little refined foods or sugar?????? Since Japanese cuisine has accepted western cuisine, all dishes contain sugar. Sushi too. Sushi is never a healthy diet. It is the same in Japan. I do not think that it is a health food. It was just a hobby of the upstream. Complaints that continue to eat will complications. However, the village of the highest longevity village in Okinawa in Japan boils pork instead of seafood and fish. It is food that is not known at all. In this way, Normal ordinary house foods become healthy. And the original Okinawa is a different ethnic group from Japan. .
27th Jun, 2017
Okinawan cuisine is very different than the cuisine of mainland Japan.
10th May, 2017
The China study would be a good place to start!
10th May, 2017
the writer is sadly out of touch with the diet that japanese actually consume today, which consists of processed foods, snacks, fast food, soda and shrink-wrapped pre-portioned "food". health statistics there reflect the effects of same, including obesity, stomach cancer (too much sodium from processed food), etc. the writer is perpetuating the myth of the 'traditional' diet, which most japanese can neither afford nor have time for. "christmas" dinner throughout much of japan consists of buckets of KFC. yes, okinawa hues to a traditional diet. rural japan somewhat. urban japan not much. look at the ingredients of any pre-pack japanese food and you'll see all the evils of modern chemistry. the diet described in this article is a re-gurgitated myth.
12th May, 2017
Seaspace, the main aim was to see the diet of those who lived till 100 years old, although it sounds that what you are saying is sadly true.
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