Dalila Roglieri

Diet and Food Culture in Japan


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This month we follow Dalila to the Sado Island, a remote island located in the Sea of ​​Japan. The place was well-known as the Island of Exile, where many uncomfortable public figures of the country were sent for centuries. The gold mines discovered in the 1600 contributed to the country’s economic growth and, today, they fuel the big interest tourists have in the place.


During my quiet wandering around the island, I meet a Japanese girl named Mika. She is a good companion: I have a great occasion to put in order my travel notes by deepening with her some aspects of the Japanese culture that have intrigued me so far.


Of course, as a nutritionist, my first wish is to talk to her about the diet of the Sol Levante, also because of the Japanese culture food lesson I will have to hold in a few days. From the very first day I arrived there, I was struck by how healthy and fit the population was. The small portions that fit in Bentō and the centrality of white rice in food play an important role but cannot be enough to explain the country's very low obesity rate, which is just 3.7% of the population.  I talked with Mika about the Japanese government's commitment to preventing obesity through building greater awareness of the correct eating habits: several ministry institutions involved in education, culture and local food promotion have collaborated in drafting official guidelines published by the government in 2005.


I strongly believe that they came up with a great idea when they decided to use the traditional Japanese toy called spinning top as a graphic representation of healthy nutrition to approach kids and adults: "The Japanese Food Guide Spinning Top" employs the image of the rotating cone in the same way we use our food pyramid. The spinning top is very effective with adults as it was a typical pastime activity when they were children. In case of young people and schools this image facilitates the communication of healthy eating habits, which are now put at risk by the growing trend in consuming Western foods. The spinning top is divided into layers representing different food groups. The order of the groups is given by the daily recommended portions, descending from top to bottom, toward the tip of the cone. Portions are measured with small containers or bowls containing, in my opinion, not more than 100 grams of the dish.


Starting from the top one can see the importance placed on physical activity and the consumption of water and green tea. The image used shows a man running around a glass of water, as a clear indication of consuming liquids in relation to the degree of physical activity which is performed. The first food group of the guide represents cereal preparations, of which daily consumption of 5 - 7 portions is recommended. Japan bases its nutrition on rice: a bowl of this steamed cereal is present in every meal together with other dishes, and is also used to prepare traditional sushi. Some typical soups use other cereals: Udon noodles, for example, are made from wheat whereas Soba noodles are based on buckwheat. I am curious about the presence of bread and pasta in the cereal group, indicating a tendency to the consumption of western typical products, now recognized as an important part of their diet. Next there is the group of vegetable dishes, which are recommended as approximately 5-6 servings a day. The chart includes salads, cooked vegetables and soups. Fermented vegetables are consumed every day and are often found as a vegetable portion included in Bentō. Women usually prepare them at home, but they can also be easily found at the supermarket. The beneficial properties resulting from fermentation increase their digestibility and contribute to maintaining the flora of the intestine in good health.


Animal or vegetable protein foods should be consumed to a minimum, without exceeding 3 to 5 daily portions. These proteins include meat, fish, eggs and soy products which are consumed as steam soy pods (edamame) or as fermented derivatives (tofu, tempeh). We can also find milk and fruit: up to 2 daily portions of each ingredient per day. This moderate serving recommendation does not surprise me as I have mainly consumed soy milk and Matcha so far, rarely finding milk products in the local menu. It is common to serve fruit at the end of the meal, but it is also often introduced as a snack - especially to avoid the consumption of industrial products, sweets or sugary drinks, which are also recommended in moderation.


The Japanese diet, as a whole, is quite similar to our Mediterranean Diet. It favours, for example, a proper supply of nutrients from cereals, vegetables and legumes. Its strength is in the measure and balance of simple food portions with an emphasis on vegetable protein foods and fresh fish. Japanese diet is also associated with active lifestyle, relaxation and meditation activities that promote inner serenity.

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