How to eat like the Japanese for good health and longevity

Research shows the Japanese diet may be just as good for you as the Mediterranean diet – and possibly the reason for all those Japanese centenarians.

In Western cultures, we often obsess over the latest quick-fix fad diet promising dramatic results.

In Japan, by contrast, the focus is on simple and mindfully prepared meals made from fresh, locally sourced ingredients.

And the Japanese must be doing something right, as their cuisine is considered one of the healthiest styles of eating in the world.

Not only is Japan a longevity hotspot, it has been linked to lower rates of cardiac episodes and obesity compared with other parts of the world, and evidence shows their diet may be at least partly to thank.

On top of that, the Japanese diet has been credited with reduced risk of dementia and may be particularly beneficial to brain health in women.

What sets the Japanese diet apart?

Freshness first

Dietitian and food researcher Dr Vincent Candrawinata says Japanese cuisine emphasises quality, fresh ingredients that are at the peak of their nutritional value and taste.

“A large proportion of the diet is from fresh foods rather than processed, and this automatically reduces the amount of sugar in the diet,” Dr Vincent says.

Small portions

The “ichiju-sansai” principle of Japanese meals is embedded in primary school, Japanese registered dietitian Ayako Watkins notes.

“Ichiju-sansai means ‘one soup, three dishes’ and is typically accompanied by rice,” Ayako says.

Small serves of multi-dish meals mean people are consuming a variety of ingredients at each meal without consuming excess calories, Dr Vincent explains.

“You’re getting smaller portions of a range of nutrients at each meal,” Dr Vincent says.

“The combination of carbohydrate from the rice, protein, and a little bit of fat helps your body release energy in a more sustained way throughout the day.”

Cooking style

Ayako says Japanese food is generally cooked using methods to preserve the natural flavour and nutritional integrity of the ingredients.

“Cooking methods primarily involve boiling, steaming and grilling, which require minimal use of oil,” she says.

Delicious flavour

Umami is critical to Japanese food, Ayako explains, as it adds depth and richness to dishes and enhances their overall flavour profile.

“Japanese cuisine places great importance on creating this umami flavour through ‘dashi’, a type of soup stock,” she says.

Prepared ahead

Ayako says meal prepping is deeply rooted in Japanese culture.

“During the weekend people prepare a variety of side dishes such as salads, vegetables mixed with sesame paste, pickles and roasted vegetables – this reduces the time needed for cooking meals during the week while ensuring a balanced diet,” she says.

What’s on the Japanese menu?

The main dish will typically include a protein source such as meat or seafood, while the side dishes usually comprise vegetables, seaweed, mushrooms, miso, soy and fermented preserves, Ayako explains.

“Particularly noteworthy in Japanese cuisine is the higher consumption of fish and legumes compared to other countries, as well as the regular consumption of fermented foods like miso and soy sauce,” she says.

Fermented foods enhance nutrient absorption and are rich in antioxidants and probiotics.

Ayako says the link between brain function and eating fish is well ingrained among Japanese people.

“A song with lyrics that say, ‘Eating fish makes you smarter,’ is often played in the supermarket’s fish section,” she says.

And science backs up the catchy song, with research showing people who eat foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids – such as fish – have better cognitive skills and healthier brain structures, as well as lower risk of heart disease.

How to follow the Japanese diet

Ayako says converting to the Japanese style of eating can take time to adjust to if you’re not familiar with it.

She recommends starting by preparing a few Japanese-inspired side dishes using fresh, seasonal ingredients on the weekend that you can enjoy through the week.

“Japanese seasoning ingredients are relatively simple, such as soy sauce, mirin, dashi and miso,” she says.

“I recommend trying to incorporate these seasonings into your cooking, and being mindful of the ichiju-sansai principle in your meals.”

Ayako suggests the following Japanese dishes, which are easy to make at home:

  • Miso soup
  • Okonomi-yaki (Japanese pancake)
  • Teriyaki chicken or fish
  • Japanese curry
  • Goma-ae (greens tossed with sesame and soy sauce)

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Written by Claire Burke.