The traditional Japanese diet tends to include less meat than other east Asian cuisines. Many of the core dishes of a traditional Japanese diet fit well in pescetarian, vegetarian, and even vegan diets. The cuisine makes excellent use of land and sea vegetables (like seaweed) in almost every form: fresh, steamed, grilled, sauteed, pickled, or fermented. Fruits, soybeans and other legumes, tofu, mushrooms, grains, and legumes round out the diet. Seafood is the only animal product that is a staple of a traditional Japanese diet cuisine, and it is eaten in smaller portions than plant-based dishes. Most other staples of the diet use very little or no meat, and most Japanese meat dishes can easily be modified to be vegetarian-friendly.
Reducing red meat intake has been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and stroke. Importantly, meat, especially red meat, is not widely eaten as part of the traditional Japanese diet. This is primarily due to the country’s Buddhist history, which dates back to the 6th century. Many schools of Buddhism prohibit killing any animals, requiring all adherents to maintain a vegetarian diet. For centuries in Japan, the consumption of most types of meat, including beef and other cattle, horse, and chicken,were banned. These bans excluded seafood and, occasionally, the consumption of certain wild animals because hunting and eating wild deer, boar, and rabbits was a popular activity among the aristocracy. Nonetheless, the traditional Japanese diet developed around a largely meat-free culture.
Seafood is a Must For Sticking to the Japanese Diet
It should come as no surprise that seafood is a staple food in Japan, a large island with nearly 30,000 km (18,641 mi) of coastline. Fish and other seafood are often the main protein in traditional Japanese cuisine. When prepared with methods that don’t add much fat, like grilling, seafood is a healthy protein with less saturated fat than red meat or poultry. It’s also a good source of omega-3 fatty acids that promote heart and brain health and lower the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. Diets rich in seafood provide essential vitamins and minerals like vitamins A and B, iron, calcium, zinc, and potassium. In addition, fatty fish like salmon can help reduce inflammation, which causes a host of health conditions, including arthritis and heart disease.
It’s Time to Develop a Taste for Fermented and Pickled Foods
Fermented and pickled ingredients are an important component of a traditional Japanese diet. These foodsaid digestion by providing the gut with probiotics (good bacteria) and help stabilize blood sugar levels. A fermented soybean dish called natto is a mainstay of the diet. However, its pungent odor and unusual texture make it an acquired taste outside Japan. The nutrient-rich food is packed with protein, iron, zinc, as well as manganese and vitamin, which promote healthy blood clotting and strong bones. Miso, a paste made from fermented soybeans, is another staple of the traditional Japanese diet that is eaten with almost every meal. The ingredient is used in miso soup, traditionally made with tofu and dashi, a clear fish-based stock. Like natto, miso is full of essential vitamins and minerals, as are the pickled fruits and vegetables that are served as side dishes with meals.
Most of us are familiar with four food flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. But the fifth, and arguably the most complex flavor, is umami. Sometimes described as savory and sometimes as meaty, it can be a bit difficult to put into wordsâbut the flavor is unmistakable. Umami from natural sources like seafood mushrooms, tamari (similar to soy sauce), and seaweed adds a earthiness and richness to traditional Japanese food. Research suggests that the flavor is critical for making youfeel more satisfied and decreasing the chance that you’ll overeat. Additionally, many sources of umami add flavor without adding salt, sugar, or fat. A 2018 study found that eating an umami-rich broth with a meal made women more likely to engage in healthy eating behaviors, including self-regulation and lower consumption of saturated fat.
Because the traditional Japanese diet is focused on balance, so-called empty caloriesâhigh-calorie foods that have little nutritional valueârarely make an appearance. Instead, every component of the traditional Japanese meal provides some necessary nutrients. Consuming vegetables with every meal, including breakfast, makes for a diet rich in fiber, calcium, iron, potassium, and vitamins A, B, C, and E. The generous use of seaweed and fermented ingredients, as well as regular drinking of green tea and sake, provide antioxidants that protect cells from damage and promote healthy aging. Even plain steamed rice, which has been unfairly maligned as “empty calories” in some Western cultures, helps with digestion and keeps you feeling full and energized.
Japanese food is not typically served in one big plate or bowl. Instead, each dish is portioned out into a separate dish or section of a dish. One meal may include seven or eight different dishes, each in small portions. You are less likely to overeat as you work your way through the meal because there is less food in front of you than if you piled your entire meal on one plate. Several studies have shown that when you have more food on your plate, you eat more food. At the same time, as you eat from each dish, you get all the nutrients you need and a diverse array of flavors. So, by having smaller portions of lots of different foods, you can create a satisfying meal that doesn’t leave you wanting more when you’re done.
One benefit of the variety and portioning of traditional Japanese cuisine is that it’s easy to make visually striking meals that look as good as they taste. While you might think that visual appeal has nothing to do with the nutrition of a diet, the aesthetics of your meal can actually help you eat healthier. Being presented with food that is beautiful and eye-catching can force you to slow down to take it in rather than eating it as quickly as possible. Plus, several studies have found that diners perceive their meals as being more delicious and more satisfying when they are prettier to look at. With the sheer variety of colorful ingredients and wealth of different textures, Japanese meals can be a feast for the eyes and mouth.
A principle of the Okinawan diet, which overlaps with the traditional Japanese diet, is hara hachi bu, which loosely translates to “eat until you are 80 percent full.” This concept is traced back to the island city of Okinawa, which boasts the highest number of people over the age of 100 worldwide. Traditional wisdom taught that eating just until you are no longer hungry, rather than until you are full, can cut down on overeating and digestion issues and reduce calorie intake. Okinawans have long life expectancies and some of the lower rates of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and cancer in the world. It’s unlikely that their diet is the sole reason for this, as genetics, lifestyle, and other risk factors contribute to these conditions. However, it stands to reason that a philosophy that promotes healthier eating would naturally lead to a healthier, longer-living population.
This is a hard blow for some. Few traditional Japanese foods have added sugar. Desserts are not a large part of the traditional Japanese diet and are very different from most Western desserts. Traditional Japanese sweets, called wagashi, tend to be low in added sugar and use natural, rather than processed, ingredients. While refined sugars are largely absent in many wagashi, fresh fruit and simple ingredients like matcha (green tea powder), red bean paste, and mochi (a cake made of glutinous rice) are the stars. These treats are usually made with plant-based ingredients and are typically served with green tea to cap off the meal. Desert portions also tend to be quite small compared to those in Western diets. Baked goods like cakes, pastries, and cookies are mostly absent in the traditional Japanese diet, although they have gained popularity in modern cuisine.
Use Fresh, Seasonal Ingredients Instead of Frozen or Canned
Japanese cuisine is deeply rooted in the concept of using fresh, seasonal ingredients (called shun) that are simple and minimally processed. Each season influences the dishes that are central to each meal. Spring dishes feature snow peas, shitake mushrooms, cherry blossoms, and strawberries. Seafood like squid, flounder, and herring are eaten fresh or cooked into soups. In the summer, eggplant, shishito peppers, cucumber, and melons take center stage, along with eel, sea urchin, and sea bass. The cooler weather of autumn brings mushrooms, chestnuts, pear, and persimmon to the forefront with salmon, mackerel, and octopus. Finally, the winter months are characterized by meals featuring cabbage and root vegetables, citrus, oysters, and yellowtail.
We’re all guilty of neglecting our water intake. But the human body is about 60 percent water. So water is absolutely essential for our bodies to function normally. Drinking water and other fluids throughout the day can help you stay hydrated. But foods with ahigh water content can also be key to replenishing the water that is lost naturally from sweating, going to the bathroom, and even breathing. Staying hydrated keeps your organs working properly, regulates your body temperature, removes waste and impurities, and promotes good digestion. Many foods that feature heavily in a Japanese diet, including cucumbers, lettuce, watercress, and broth, are loaded with water and lots of other nutrients that help you replenish your body’s fluids. These foods are low-calorie, filling, and nutrient-rich.
Soybeans and soy products are ubiquitous in Japanese cuisine. From edamame (immature soybeans) and natto (a pungent dish made from fermented soybeans) to tamari (a sauce similar to soy sauce made from fermented soybeans) and tofu (made by pressing curdled soy milk into blocks), you would be hard-pressed to eat a traditional Japanese meal that doesn’t have at least one soy element. Soy products are a rich source of protein without the saturated fat and cholesterol of meat and dairy. They’re also packed with isoflavones, which are anti-inflammatory and promote heart health. High consumption of soybeans has been linked to lower blood pressure and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease.
Sip your way to better health with green tea. By far, the most common drink in a traditional Japanese diet is green tea. It’s a staple of most meals. In Japan, green tea is typically served hot without added sweeteners or dairy, making it a low-calorie and hydrating drink. This tea has many health benefits, including boosting the immune system, maintaining healthy blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol levels, and promoting overall health. Some studies have even suggested that green tea may reduce the risk of developing certain cancers and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. Those who study the traditional Japanese diet believe that high green consumption may play an important role in the population’s health and longevity.
Dive into the world of Japanese cuisine with seaweed. This versatile marine plant is a common ingredient in Japanese dishes and is packed with nutrients and health benefits. Seaweed is often eaten raw, in soups, as a salad or side dish, over rice, and dried as garnish or condiment. The marine plant is loaded with nutrients and health benefits.It’s the best natural source of iodine, an essential mineral that supports hormone production and metabolism. A single serving of seaweed contains a full day’s recommended iodine. Additionally, some research suggests that eating seaweed promotes heart and gut health and boosts immune function. Adding the ingredient to your diet may help lower blood pressure and maintain healthy blood sugar.
Ginger, oh ginger! This spicy and aromatic root is not only a delicious addition to your meals, but it’s also packed with all sorts of health benefits. Ginger is a common ingredient in a traditional Japanese diet. Pickled ginger, or gari, is made by preserving thin slices of ginger in a mix of vinegar, sugar, and salt. The result is a sweet, sour, and slightly spicy dish that cleans the palate and has antimicrobial properties. Gari may be eaten at the beginning or end of the meal or between dishes. Research suggests that ginger in any form can help fight bacterial infections. Ginger is naturally anti-inflammatory, which helps prevent inflammation-related conditions. The root contains antioxidants that protect cells and may support brain function and promote healthy aging. Ginger also helps aid digestion, reduces gas, and prevents nausea.
Umeboshi is a type of pickled plum that is popular in Japanese cuisine. It has a sour and salty flavor and is often used as a condiment or added to rice dishes. Umeboshi is high in antioxidants, which are substances that can help protect your cells from damage caused by free radicals. Free radicals are unstable molecules that can be harmful to your body and are believed to contribute to the development of certain chronic diseases. In addition to its high antioxidant content, umeboshi is also believed to have a number of other health benefits. Some research suggests that it may help to improve digestion, boost the immune system, and reduce the risk of certain types of cancer. It is also thought to have anti-inflammatory effects and may help to reduce the severity of certain types of headaches.
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