How to eat the way Japanese people do, and why

Eat less, except for veggies, and cook more. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I’ve never traveled to Japan. But with the Summer Olympics going on right now in Tokyo, it’s a good time to take a look at a study suggesting that Japanese children are associated with two enviable statistics compared to children in other countries, and why that might be.

The key numbers, according to the British medical journal The Lancet, are 73 and 84:

On average, a typical Japanese child can expect to grow to age 73 with no major life illnesses or disabilities, and has a total average life expectancy of 84.

Compare that to the United States, where the expected ages for all children born today are much lower: around 65 and 76, respectively.

So, what accounts for the eight-year difference? One theory is that it has to do with cultural norms that have evolved in Japan around diet and exercise in children.

This brings us to Naomi Moriyama, a writer who grew up in Japan but now lives in New York. Together with her husband William Doyle, she wrote a bestselling book called Japanese Women Don’t Get Fat close to 20 years ago. Later, she wrote another—Secrets of the World's Healthiest Children—which examines lessons she says American families can take from Japanese parents.

Here’s what she says are the seven most important things to do.

1. Use smaller plates.

If your family's dinner plates are standard-sized American ones, perhaps 8 inches wide or more, substitute smaller, Japanese-style plates, which are more likely to be 4 or 6 inches wide.

You probably don't even have to buy anything new, Moriyama writes. "Simply give your larger serving plates a break (put them up on the highest shelf) and serve meals on smaller plates, like the side, salad, or bread plates you already have."

2. Encourage physical activity.

Nearly every Japanese child either walks to school or rides a bike (98.3% of the population). In the US, more than 90% of kids either ride buses, are driven by parents, or ride in carpools.

Beyond that, Japanese children spend a greater portion of their day engaged in physical activity than Americans. Obviously, Covid threw a complicating factor into this for many kids, but in some US elementary schools, recess and outdoor play are almost a thing of the past.

3. Involve kids in cooking and prep.

This probably isn’t a “do it every day” bit of advice, because kids have schedules and activities—and parents do, too. But to the extent parents can make at least some meals an all-in family experience, research suggests it can help kids live healthier lifestyles.

"Eating family meals together is a practice that many families around the world, including in Japan, are finding harder and harder to pull off," Moriyama writes. "But it is a goal worth striving for. The potential health benefits for children appear to be huge."

4. Try new things.

It's understandable to want to stick to food that you know your kids like, or that they at least will eat without a fight. That said, exploring and trying new foods and being open to new things will make it easier to make good choices as they get older.

Bonus advice for parents dealing with picky eaters: One of my colleagues years ago wrote about the 6 magic words she found that really work:

Every time he says “yuck” or “I don’t want that,” I say calmly, “You don’t have to eat it,” and tuck into my own meal.

It gave me permission to stop hounding my son to eat … It’s also stopped the short-order-cook thing in its tracks. I cook whatever I want to eat, and if my son doesn’t want to try, say, squash and sausage casserole one night, that’s up to him.

5. Make mealtime an event to enjoy.

Again, I don't mean to turn this into fantasyland; certainly not every meal will be a tranquil, celebratory experience. But sitting at a clean table in a nicely lit kitchen, for example, and working to ensure that squabbles and stress are absent can go a long way in this regard.

Of course, you can't always control your kids' moods, but you can work on your own. Decide that you won't contribute to the drama—and model good behavior for them in the process.

6. Choose healthy, low-density foods.

You don’t have to adopt a fully Japanese diet, but some Japanese practices could require making some different choices.

Typical Japanese meals consist of a series of four or five smaller-sized dishes, Moriyama says, such as: a small bowl of soup, a small bowl of rice, and perhaps a small portion each of tofu, fish, or meat, plus two vegetables:

"Serve more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and healthy fats, like heart-healthy omega 3-rich fish, and less processed food with added sugars and salt. This food pattern is relatively low in calories, high in nutrients, and more efficiently filling by being lower in calorie density or calories-per-bite.”

7. Remember you're the boss.

We have a lot of readers who are parents, or grandparents, and maybe even a few great-grandparents. I wonder how many have struggled with this question: basically, how to use an authoritative approach to parenting, rather than an authoritarian one.

This means basing what we ask of kids on rational, thought-out explanations (as opposed to insisting that they do as you say simply because you're the parent).

Again: This is aspirational advice, not something I think most people can do every moment of every day. But of course, it also applies to much more than food choices if you want to help kids grow up to be happy, healthy, and successful.

Call for comments: Should we eat like people in Japan? What other tips and tricks do you have to share regarding how to raise healthy and successful kids?

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Understandably Live

Good one coming up tomorrow. At the start of July, I wrote for about Elon Musk apparently living in a $50,000, 380-square-foot modular home in Boca Chica, Texas (home to the SpaceX launch site).

So tomorrow, I’ll be interviewing … OK, not Musk, but Paolo Tiramani, CEO and founder of Boxabl, which is the intriguing company that built Musk’s modular home, and which has big-time aspirations.

I’ll have more details on this in tomorrow’s newsletter. But for now, if you want to get a jump on things and sign up for the Zoom interview (participants can listen in, suggest questions, etc. in real time), sign up here.

Details: Thursday, July 29, at 1 p.m. ET.

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7 other things

Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. I wrote about some of this a while back on Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.