Japan has one of the lowest national rates of obesity in the world. Statistics published by NationMaster show that, as of 2005, the percentage of Japan's population with a body mass index (BMI) — a measure of body fat based on height and weight— greater than 30 was just 3.2%; the United States topped that 28-country list, with 30.6% of citizens reporting a BMI above 30. The Weight Loss Center credits this low rate to the Japanese approach to diet and exercise. The national diet is well balanced — low in fat, high in carbohydrates, and rich in protein.
Fish and rice are staples of the Japanese diet. Each meal generally includes two fish courses, one served hot, the other cold. Fish is baked, grilled, served in soups, or eaten raw. According to the Weight Loss Center, Japanese consume far more fish than Americans, and eat less red meat. Fish is rich in many nutrients — protein, vitamins A and D, and minerals like iron — and is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Eating less red meat also reduces the risk of heart disease.
Rice is the main carbohydrate consumed in Japan, and is present at almost every meal. According to the Weight Loss Center, carbohydrates account for around 55% of Japan's total calorie intake. Japanese favor brown rice, which is higher in fiber than white rice. According to the International Life Sciences Institute Japan, rice tastes better with savory foods than with sugary foods, and since Japanese have a high intake of carbohydrates, they don’t feel the need to have a high-sugar desert after meals.
Japanese consume a wide variety of foods, but in smaller quantities than Americans. Many Japanese foods, such as sushi, are bite-sized, which encourages diners to eat slowly and savor the food — meaning they eat less during the same period of time, and are less tempted to wolf food down. Japanese also use smaller plates, creating the illusion of consuming more food than they actually have.
Japanese incorporate exercise into their daily lives whenever they can. They tend to include exercise more in their lifestyles rather than working out at the gym, with walking and biking common as means of transportation. By walking to work or taking the stairs, they burn calories as part of their daily routine, a key step in fighting obesity.
Japanese use broths to flavor food, instead of calorie-dense, heavy sauces, like cream sauce. Fish broth is fundamental to Japanese cuisine; other common broths use dried kelp, or dried shiitake mushrooms. A serving of broth-based soup at the start of a meal is filling, and diners thus consume fewer calories throughout the rest of the meal. The Japanese use light cooking techniques to prepare food, such as steaming, stir-frying, and simmering. These methods preserve a food's nutrients and antioxidants, and reduces the number of fat calories.
The Japanese stop eating before they are completely full, using a practice called “Hara hachi bunme.” This, "National Geographic" notes, encourages people to stop eating when they are 80% full, then wait 20 to 30 minutes to determine if they are still hungry. The use of chopsticks also leads to slower eating. Since it takes approximately 20 minutes of eating for the satiety center in your brain's hypothalamus to register that your stomach is full, eating slowly means you will recognize you're full sooner, and thus eat less.