The traditional Japanese diet couldn't be more dissimilar from the standard American diet. Japanese staples include fresh fish, rice, soy, vegetables, fruit and green tea, while the American diet relies heavily on red meat, poultry and processed foods high in salt or added sugar. According to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is the second fattest nation in the world, second only to Mexico, with 28 percent of the U.S. population considered obese. Japan, on the other hand, has one of the lowest obesity rates among lead economies, coming in at three percent.
Traditional Japanese Diet
A traditional Japanese home-cooked meal includes a piece of grilled fish, such as salmon or mackerel, a bowl of brown rice, simmered vegetables, a small bowl of miso soup, green tea and a piece of fruit. The Japanese consume twice as much fish as Americans, and most meals are served with rice. Soy, in the form of tofu, edamame, miso and soy sauce is a staple, as are vegetables such as eggplant, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Seaweed, including nori and wakame, is another main component of the diet. Fuji apples, persimmons and tangerines are typically served for dessert. Portions tend to be small, and many Japanese stop eating before they’re full.
Standard American Diet
The standard American diet, also known as SAD or more generally as the Western diet, is largely based on animal products and processed foods. The diet is high in calories and saturated fat served in over-sized portions. Dairy products such as milk, cheese and ice cream figure prominently, as does beef and poultry. The average American eats 60 pounds of beef each year, or three times that of the average Japanese, according to writer Naomi Moriyama in “Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat.” Highly refined grains, including cereal, pasta, snack foods and baked goods are a major component of SAD, and often a significant source of sodium or added sugars.
Health Consequences of SAD
Since 1980, the prevalence of obesity in the United States has doubled among adults, due in large part to the high-calorie, nutritionally-devoid Western diet in combination with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. While Americans do consume moderate amounts of whole grains, fruits and vegetables, which are higher in nutrition and lower in calories, such foods aren’t the diet's foundation. Consequently, Americans have higher incidence of obesity, cancer, kidney disease, heart disease, stroke, Type 2 diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders and high cholesterol and blood pressure. Conversely, populations that consume plant-based diets that emphasize fish and keep dairy and meat consumption to a minimum experience a significantly lower incidence of these chronic diseases and conditions.
After World War II, Japan began absorbing some Western ways of life, which included the adoption of many Western foods. The Japanese continue to consume some of the high-calorie, high-fat foods featured in the American diet, including bread, ice cream, doughnuts, hamburgers, French fries and pizza. However, portions are “Japanese-sized, not American-sized,” according to Moriyama, and such foods are an occasional treat rather than daily fare.
Still, an increasing number of Japanese have embraced the habit of eating sugary cereal with milk, as well as other refined carbohydrates and animal proteins. Consequently, from 1950 to 2000, the average height and build of a Japanese child has increased 12 percent, according to “Culture Smart! Japan.”