Diet Secrets I Learned From Japan

By Mike Howard

1950-Japanese food.jpg

Japan is a land of great innovation but also steeped in tradition.

Here are some of the aspects the traditional Japanese lifestyle, including diet, exercise and in general a way of life that should be the model of healthy living for the rest of the world.


Small portions are the rule in traditional Japanese dining. Meals are served in small plates and bowls with a strong emphasis on presentation. But, perhaps the hallmark of Japanese portion control is their mantra known as “Hara Hachi Bu” (Eat until 80% full). This has become lost on a western culture that eats until they are about 124% full!

In terms of the food itself, traditional Japanese food is rich in vegetables, whole grains and marine life. For the average Okinawan, vegetables, grains, and fruits make up 72% of the diet by weight. Soy and seaweed provide another 14%. Meat, poultry, and eggs account for just 3% of the diet, and fish about 11%. (Source)


In terms of their fish consumption, Japanese people living in Japan were shown to have 45-80% higher levels of omega-3’s in their blood than both white Americans and Japanese Americans. This correlated to a significant decrease in cardiac risk factors.

The Japanese version of the food pyramid is a unique concept. The “shokuseikatsu” ??? (“food lifestyle”) has all the makings of traditional and healthy constituents of a diet, but instead of a pyramid, it’s a spinning top with the exerciser on top that makes it spin. How brilliant is that?


In Japan, walking as a lifestyle. Japanese people just plain move more. Driving isn’t as common as it is in North America, so they take more steps on a day-to-day basis.

HIIT Innovators — another form of exercise that has become one of the most popular concepts in conditioning was the result of the research of Izumi Tabata, who popularized the “Tabata method”. Think very intense bursts of work followed by a rest period (usually a 2:1 work/rest ratio).

Good Squatting — in observing the Japanese volunteers at my children’s play center, I’m amazed they stay in a deep squat position for what seems to be an eternity, while they interact with the children. Whether this is due to “squat toilets”, an absence of chairs or a mandate in PE class, the Japanese tend to be naturally adept squatters. This bodes well for better hip mobility later in life, I suspect.

Escaping traditional = health deterioration

Sadly as countries adopt Westernized culture, health begins to suffer and Japan is no exception. The land of the rising sun has become the land of rising obesity.

To paraphrase my friend and colleague Ryan Zielonka, who is both a fat loss expert and Asian studies major, an entire konbini (convenience store) culture (????) is rampant — unparalleled by what we see in North America. Japan is the home of what’s known as tabehoudai (????), which translates to “all-you-possibly-can eat,” and cakes/sweets are as accessible as they are here.

Take-home message

While it may not be realistic to live exactly like the traditional Okinawans, we can take a page out of their culture in terms of our outlook on eating, exercise and lifestyle. It starts with changing the way we see food, which can permeate into what we are eating, how we are cooking it, and how much of it we are eating.

It also wouldn’t hurt us to hoof it more often, putting more daily activity into our lifestyles. Then, when you feel ready and have established some good hip mobility, mix in some Tabatas and deep squats into your routine!

Image source: jimg944
Food pyramid: mhlw


  1. mydermatologist

    The Japanese have a great expression concerning healthy eating habits: Hara hachi bu. Hara hachi bu means “Eat until 80% full” (literally, stomach 80%). This is excellent advice and it’s pretty easy to follow this principle in Japan as proportions are generally much smaller than in places like the US.

  2. DietingDaisy

    I am East Asian, and we’ve been eating white rice in our diet at home for years and years and years, and even before I was born, and maybe even before many of my ancestors were born. Since I was a child, white rice was actually one of the things that my family ate the most, despite it being unhealthy in Western cultures where brown rice is more nutritious.

    But other than the white rice, in our home, we usually prepare dishes rather than meals. We usually make a plate of vegetables, plate of steamed fish or some sort of seafood, and a plate of meat that can be beef or chicken.

  3. Lindsay

    Why is omega-3 so important and a huge component?

  4. HCG Diet Information

    The Japanese diet includes foods with very low cholesterol content and is practically free from the saturated fats abundantly present in red meat, dairy produce and butter. Instead, the Japanese diet abounds in seafood. These contain high amounts of iodine as well as minerals and micro elements which are both healthy and also impart to Japanese food its inimitable flavor.

  5. daphnesy

    Will it depends on us and you dont have to starve yourself. Here’s my tips: Exercise as a daily habit is still one of the best and safest way to reach your ultimate goal of losing weight. But, with the kind of lifestyle people have today, more and more people are trying to forget this fact. They follow a lot of diet programs that almost always tend to lead to a “no eating” plan. Chances are, they mostly take the “T” from the word “DIET”. You don’t have to go and starve yourself – combined with exercise and diet, you can get your ultimate weight goal. You can never go wrong with that. There’s just one thing that you have to remember when you are trying to get the perfect body that you always dream of – programs that are too good to be true are mostly just isn’t what it claims to be. For that ideal weight that you want, you have to work for it. And there’s no better time to start on it but today.

  6. ps

    Actually the Japanese eat their fair share of beef pork and poultry. And wolf down more then their fair share of beer. I lived there for a number of years and was in the best condition of my life. Bottom line is to get around, especially within a few miles of your home, was walk or bike. Shop at the local markets foodwise, and eat a lot of o-bento. The convenience culture works wonders. And the locals have a major sweet tooth. Even the local fast food shops (Freshness Burger, Yoshinoya) have great munchies with a big client base. The big difference is the portions are circa- 1960’s US instead of the humongous portions that we have here today.

  7. Ryan

    The calf flexibility is probably more important. The more you have, the more extreme an angle your lower legs can be at while still having your feet flat on the ground.

    The body structure determines the weight distribution. I can’t remember if it’s having shorter/longer femurs or torsos, but the balance is set up so that we can just stay in that position and it feels natural.

  8. Joanne

    Also, fast-food is not as common in Japanese tradition/culture as it emphasis more on healthy home-cook meals. In comparison to the Japanese culture, Western diet relies more on the conviniency side and we see a lot of fast-fixing meals going into the diet.

  9. Ann

    Also notice sugar and other sweets aren’t actually on their “pyramid” at all … all they have are grains, vegetables, meats and soy, dairy, and fruits.

  10. Spectra

    I think the levels of fish in the typical Japanese diet probably contribute a lot to their health. Western medicine has only started to discover the benefits of having a good omega-3 fatty acid level in one’s system. I have noticed my cholesterol numbers have been insanely good ever since I’ve started supplementing my diet with 2 gms fish oil per day.

  11. Mike Howard

    I actually should have mentioned that it is Asians in general – not only the Japanese.

    I’m curious about the weight distribution, calf flexibility and body structure. Can you elaborate?

  12. Ryan

    The squatting is a difference in body structure, and that’s not just a Japanese thing. Many Asians have different weight distribution and calf flexibility that makes it effortless. We’re not “squatting”, we’re sitting down without a chair.

    The fish and seaweed consumption is probably the most major dietary factor in their health. Trace minerals make a huge difference.

  13. Wet Wolf

    The increase in Omega-3 fats is a huge component. All Americans should suppleement with fish oil.

  14. Scotty123

    If you look at the type of grain (rice) they eat and compair it to american diet (corn and wheat). Rice is a better grain, especially brown rice. Corn lacks omega 3 oils and is highly deficient in several amino acids.