Along with Mediterranean Diet, The Japanese Diet has become well-used shorthand for “healthy diet”. To us, it tends to mean plenty of fish, sea vegetables, rice and little meat and dairy.
The Japanese are among the most long-lived (87 years as an average), and on a recent trip to Japan, this was certainly evident. Everywhere we went there were quite elderly women and men going about daily tasks – shopping, meeting friends for tea, exercising together and even cleaning their front steps and gardens with reed brooms. We remarked on the “visibility” of this group, as at home in the UK the very elderly seem to be invisible; perhaps too frail to participate in wider society.
While the elderly have had the benefit of what we think of as the Japanese diet, there has been evidence that things have changed for younger populations. The National Health and Nutrition survey of 2003 found that 30% of men between 30 and 60 were overweight, and in all age groups, except for the 20s, overweight is increasing. Meanwhile, among young woman, the desire to become or remain very slim was strong.
Ready to eat meals have also increased. Where traditionally most meals were prepared and eaten in the home, the working culture has clashed with traditional food culture resulting in a year-on-year increase in fewer opportunities for breakfast and more reliance on purchased bento boxes, deli and restaurant meals.
Fortunately, there has been a concerted and coordinated effort to stem this slide towards Western-style eating and food culture. The concept of “Shokiuku” was developed and implemented in 2005 to address the growing worry of obesity and metabolic syndrome, targeting especially childhood obesity, and advancing the role of dietitians and school meals in reducing obesity rates.
Shokiuku supports the nutritionally balanced, traditional, “rice-centric” diet that includes plenty of vegetables, fruits, fish and some meat. Enshrined in law and supported by parents, teachers and school staff healthy eating is not only taught but practised. For example, at primary school level, parents are invited to eat lunch with their children, a meal that the children have a role in planning and preparing. The sharing of meals is one of the hallmarks of the traditional Japanese diet.
Across all ages groups, Shokiuku aims to increase connection with good food through encouraging and enabling healthy food choices and knowledge about sustainability and provenance of food. The goal is to get people to rely less on imported foods and turn once again to local producers, eating seasonally, with an emphasis on simple home cooking. Knowledge about how and why healthy eating is important is woven into all strands of food education
Global efforts at addressing obesity and metabolic syndrome tend to be primarily about the result, but the Japanese approach is also about the how they will get to that result. The importance of population-wide layered educational methods and approaches are seen as key. Watch this space…
Kellie Anderson, MSc Health Education kelliesfoodtoglow.com
Food-based Dietary Guidelines for Japan (FAO document)
The Basic Plan for Promotion for Shokiuku (pdf)
School-based Shokiuku program in Japan