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How the Japanese Stay Slim

The traditional Japanese diet – known as one of the healthiest in the world – is based on a large variety of vegetables, tofu and fish. Rice is the main staple, but during dinner at fine restaurants, banquet meals and in many households (including ours) it's eaten at the end of the meal, with pickles and soup. Rice is not consumed with alcohol, and we like to enjoy our cocktails while leisurely nibbling on small quantities of a wide variety of foods. It is only after we're finished drinking that gohan, which means "rice" as well as "meal" – served. Therefore, the ingestion of white starch is kept at a reasonable level, often just one small bowl. During lunch, rice is eaten with okazu (things to go with rice), but again, the quantity is small. This is how my parents have managed to stay slim their entire lives. But this is not the only secret.

Japanese cooking methods generally use water, not oil. This differs vastly from Chinese cooking, where the food is stir-fried with oil at a high temperature. In Japan, raw, simmered and grilled techniques predominate, while frying is rare. When fried food is served, such as tempura, a few pieces are enjoyed along with other dishes, so the overall balance of the meal is healthy.

The prevalence of water – both to grow vegetables and to sustain seafood in Japan’s rivers and seas, has blessed Japan with an abundance of fresh seasonal produce. This, combined with the belief that it is best to eat a wide variety of food of different colors during every meal, forms the basis of a healthy diet. Although Japanese food uses a relatively high amount of sugar, desserts tend to be either nonexistent or consist of a small peice of fresh fruit.

Red meat was a relatively recent introduction, with the opening of Japan to the west in the late 19th century. Before that, Japanese cuisine was heavily influenced by Buddhist precepts, which forbade the taking of life and thus led to a rich vegetarian tradition. Even today, the Japanese approach to eating red meat is in moderate portions with a large quantity of vegetables and/or tofu.

Above: Kabu (turnips) outside a pickle shop in Kyoto. Fresh, local, seasonal vegetables comprise a large part of the Japanese diet
crab kanten squares

Crab kanten appetizer
This recipe is packed with flavor, but has very few calories. Crab, lemon and snow peas float in a kanten and dashi-based savory jelly. Light and refreshing, it's perfect for a summer party. RECIPE

Six low- and no-calorie foods
daikon kombu

This giant white radish aids digestion and has detoxifying benefits. Being 95% water, it is very low in calories. Kabu (turnip, pictured above, right) also has similar benefits.

Used to make dashi, a soup stock that lends umami richness and flavor without adding calories, kombu (kelp) is low in calories and high in calcium, minerals and iodine.

konnyaku shirataki

Konnyaku (a jelly-like food made from devil's tongue, a type of yam) has zero calories and is high in indigestible fiber, which has cleaning properties. It adds suprising heft to dishes and takes on the flavor of simmering liquids.

Used in simmered dishes such as sukiyaki, this white noodle made is from konnyaku (left) and is becoming a popular diet noodle. Don't use it with butter and cheese if you want to keep the calories low.

kanten shitake

This is a type of seaweed that is used in place of gelatin. With virtually no calories, kanten is a popular and versatile ingredient in the dieter's pantry. Unlike gelatin, which is derived from animals, kanten can be used in the vegan kitchen.

Packed with flavor but surprisingly low in calories, these mushrooms also are high in fiber and vitamins B and D. While available fresh, the dried variety has a concentrated, rich mushroom flavor, and a little goes a long way.

And lastly, let’s not forget presentation: servings tend to be much smaller in Japan, with special attention to the tableware used. The huge portions expected in restaurants in the U.S. would seem grossly excessive – if not obscene – in Japan. The habit of taking leftovers home is also a foreign concept. The right amount of food is served, neither too much nor too little, and it is considered rude to waste food.

When I try recipes in diet books featuring Western cuisine, it seems to me that the missing fat somehow adds up to missing taste, leading to an unsatisfied sensation. When I crave a Western dish, I want to enjoy it the way it’s supposed to be made; be it pasta with lots of olive oil, or dishes using real cheese, not tofu. However, with Japanese cuisine, I never feel like something is missing. It’s much easier to maintain healthy habits this way.