The Myth of Japanese Food

June 8, 2007

Japanese food is healthy, one of the great myths of this country.

From macrobiotics to The Okinawa Diet Plan, Japanese food is billed as the food that will save your life. Seaweed, fish, soy products, rice, green tea, how many times have we heard of the benefits of consuming these?

At the same time, the Japanese have many startling eating habits that are downright unhealthy.

First, there is no concept of lean or low fat here. While there may be ten different brands of milk on the shelf, perhaps only one of those will be a low fat version. Skim? Don’t make me laugh. Japanese people also eat eggs with abandon. An omelette for breakfast, an egg scrambled into stir-fry, sliced beef dipped in raw egg. There are eggs everywhere! Then there’s the meat. When first learning how to cook chicken, my mom always told me to make sure I cut off all of the fat. Try that here and you’d be cutting for hours. Steaks come lined with half an inch of fat on them. Sliced beef and pork for stir-fries and hotpots consist of mostly fat. And prized Kobe beef, which can run up to $100 for 100 grams (3.5 ounces), makes me nauseous, since there’s so much fat marbled in the flesh.

Second, the Japanese love deep frying. Whereas this form of cooking has become taboo in the States because of its high fat content, the love for dunking things in gallons of hot oil still burns strong in the Land of Rising Cholesterol. Fried chicken, fried pork cutlet, fried oysters, fried tofu, these are especially common menus for children and workers subjected to company cafeterias.

Third, high sodium content. Did you know that, compared to the West, the Japanese have a lower incidence rate for nearly all cancers, except stomach cancer? One of the leading causes of stomach cancer, it is believed, is a diet high in sodium, which the Japanese get plenty of in soy sauce and miso. See here for more info. They tend also to prefer tea over water, which I’m sure doesn’t help in rehydrating.

Fourth, surprisingly, it’s very difficult to eat vegetables unless you make a concerted effort to. In a typical bowl of udon, the only greenery might be a spoonful of green onions or a couple pieces of seaweed. In the US, a sushi set might come with a salad, but this is a convention created to appeal to Western tastes. In Japan, sushi is fish and rice, with maybe a bowl of egg custard to clean the palate. The hamburger you ate for lunch might have come with a leaf of lettuce. A side salad can be constituted as three pieces of iceberg lettuce, some cabbage shavings, and two slices of red onion. And everyone knows the stereotype of how expensive Japanese fruit is. The prohibitive costs of eating fruits and vegetables – both in restaurants and at home – can often make frozen potstickers and croquettes easier on the wallet, not to mention easier to prepare.

Fifth, the Japanese love mayonnaise. As salad dressing, on pizza, on pasta, on omelettes. There are even certain people called mayoraa, a creative Japanese fusion of the words “mayonnaise” and the suffix “er” (i.e. a player being someone who plays, etc.). A mayoraa is not just someone who likes mayonnaise, but who puts its on everything, even on top of white rice. Puke!

Sixth, the Japanese obsess over sweets like I have never before seen. We Americans can hold our own in the doughnut and ice cream department, but the Japanese covet cake, pastries, bread, and chocolates, as demonstrated by walking into any convenience or department store. All-you-can-eat cake buffets are a staple in most nice Japanese hotels and women flock there like, well, kids to a candy store.

Now, many Americans might be asking, if all I eat is fat-free bran crackers and the Japanese are over there pigging out, why is it that we get all of the negative publicity? Why aren’t the Japanese as fat as we are? Simple. They eat less and exercise more. After living in Japan and seeing what most people eat on a day-to-day basis, I’m more convinced than ever the “secret” to staying thin is portion control and exercise. An example: when I first came to Japan, I went to an Italian restaurant called Capricciosa, where I was served a miniscule calzone which I gobbled down in five minutes. Now, five years later, when I go to that very same restaurant, I usually can’t finish my meal. The actual portion size hasn’t changed, but the size of my stomach has. Mind you, a serving of pasta at Capricciosa is about one-third the size of a serving of pasta at The Cheesecake Factory.

In certain slices of the Japanese population, the over sixty crowd, for example, it is still very common to eat a traditional, healthy Japanese diet and get daily exercise. These are the people who live until 113. But give the Japanese one more generation and their life-spans will probably decrease. Give them two generations and who knows? They may even get as fat as Americans.

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2 Responses to “The Myth of Japanese Food”

  1. Keiko said

    I always wonder the same things you do about how Japanese people aren’t obese with heart disease. I mean, every time I go to m2m I come home with a huge bag of straight junk food, probably 10,000 calories in the one shopping bag. The worst offenders are the eggs and mayo (in those long cream colored tube things with red tops). Dude, one egg yolk has 270 something milligrams of cholesterol. That’s just nasty. But you are right, eating a handful of food at each meal will definitely keep you small. Maybe in 20 years or something Japan will look like the midwest. Gross.

  2. sailorjes said

    Kewpie! That’s the mayo, by the way. It’s actually pretty good, by mayonnaise standards. Shin’s family uses it as salad dressing, squeezing a big dollop onto the side of the plate and then dipping tomato and boiled broccoli into it. At first, I was horrified, but I kinda like it now.

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