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It's a Lifestyle Thing - Healthy Living in Japan

Dr Craig at Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

I recently returned from an 8 day sightseeing trip of Japan. Many temples were visited, unusual foods consumed and quirky sights seen that can only be found in the land of the rising sun. However, it was the noticeable difference in our respective lifestyles that intrigued me the most. To put it simply, the Japanese people look healthy. They are slim, active and bubbly. Full of energy, always excited to greet you, happy, healthy looking people. Let’s explore this a little deeper. The biggest thing I noticed immediately was the size of the people. Well, not the biggest, because they are not big. Yes they are petite in stature, but they have small waistlines too. Almost nobody in Japan is overweight.

As I explored why the Japanese are healthier and thinner than us I realised a few surprising points. As it turns out, they aren’t exactly spending hours in the gym plodding away on the treadmill or doing Jenny Craig diets. It seemed like they were keeping healthy without any extra effort. The health of the Japanese cannot be attributed to a program or special diet.

It must be a lifestyle thing!

Exercise: After the first few hours of arriving, I quickly realized there is a lot of unplanned exercise. For a city as large as Tokyo (13 million), I didn’t witness any traffic congestion. Essentially, Japan is a country that necessitates exercise, especially walking. A typical day in Tokyo involves walking to the station in the morning, standing on crowded trains, walking between transfer points, and then walking to your destination once you get to the correct station. In between, there are lots and lots of stairs. There’s not a lot of sitting involved when getting around a place like Tokyo.

Dr Craig eating fresh sashimi

Food: I have a typical Aussie male appetite and the Japanese portion sizes aren’t large. Often I wasn’t satisfied after a meal. It made me realize just how much and frequently we overeat in the western world. These were normal portions in Japan and it should be a normal portion size for anyone. Our stomachs have been stretched and conditioned to be bursting after meals. Sadly, even the Japanese culture can’t escape our bad habits. Food habits are being westernized causing obesity rates to treble from 1962 to 2002. More and more people are asking for oomori (large size) when ordering their favourite foods.

Another unique lifestyle trait used by the Japanese is the use of chopsticks. Chopsticks actually hinder your ability to eat (especially if you’re like me and struggle to eat with two sticks in one hand), which is a good thing – it makes you slow down. They’re a utensil that force you to eat slowly, giving your body the chance to tell you when it’s really had enough, whereas, us westerners tend to eat so fast that by the time the stomach can catch up and tell us to stop, we’ve already eaten too much. Japanese food tends to be a lot healthier as well. Yes, they have McDonald’s. Yes, they have lots of convenience stores and vending machines that sell ice-creams and peculiar types of soft drinks. However, this isn’t the bulk of what the Japanese eat. Far from it.

Sashimi - fresh tuna with rice

With regards to their rare snacking, many Japanese will opt for onigiri - a triangular ball of rice wrapped in seaweed and filled with tuna, beef, or veggies (it’s delicious!). Quite a lot healthier than a meat pie!

Japanese meals are extremely varied and diverse, but they often contain foods like fish, rice, seaweed, lots of veggies, bone broth, and lots of other good stuff.

Another notable difference between our cultures is our choice of drinks. We tend to drink a lot of calories e.g alcohol, soft drinks, juice, smoothies, lattes etc. Contrast that to the Japanese, where most of what people drink is low or no-calorie consisting of water and unsweetened tea. In fact, many restaurants we went to didn’t even offer drinks on the menu; you just get a small glass of water or tea with your meal.

In conclusion, the day to day way that the Japanese live simply keeps them healthy. It’s ingrained in their habits and society, meaning it’s something they barely think about. Not only does Japan offer a beautiful culture to explore and incredible sights but more significantly it offers many lessons that us westerners can and should learn from.

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