When it comes to living the longest, and the healthiest, the Japanese are Number 1 — quite literally. Children born in Japan today enjoy the best life expectancy of any country in the world: 84 years, according to the World Health Organization.
Think the U.S. is close behind? You’d be wrong: The average life expectancy stateside is 79 years. And you’d have to drop down the list by nearly three dozen places to find the U.S. even with nations like Cuba, Lebanon and Costa Rica.
Japan’s secret is, in large part, the diet. A recent study by Japan’s National Centre for Global Health and Medicine found that people who stick to the United Nations’ Japanese dietary guidelines have a lower risk of all-cause mortality, including cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.
Here’s another comparison: Compared to 32 percent of Americans, only 3.6 percent of Japanese adults are obese. And Japanese adults are nearly three times less likely to be overweight than Americans, according to joint research from the University of Minnesota and Japan’s Masahiko Gemma Waseda University.
Here’s a look at the best-kept secrets of Japanese living, and how you can put them to use for better health and weight loss.
1. START EATING SOY
Japan’s reliance on plant-based protein, especially soy, pays off in terms of weight loss, according to Katie Ferraro, RD, MPH, an assistant clinical professor at the University of California, San Francisco and the University of San Diego. Intake of soy protein — found in tofu, edamame, soybeans and tempeh — has been linked to weight loss, even when caloric intake doesn’t change. Researchers believe soy protein may influence hormonal levels and, thus, metabolic rate, to encourage weight loss.
2. SNACK SMART
The typical Japanese food pattern consists of three meals per day and an “oyatsu,” or afternoon snack. “Compare that to the U.S., where snacks make up about 25 percent of average calorie intake and are generally snack foods of low nutritive value,” adds Ferraro. In Japan, snacks can range from rice balls to candy, but they usually come in small portions so they don’t tip the caloric scales. Plus, when it comes to less-than-healthy foods, an “all things in moderation” approach prevent the food deprivation that leads to rebound binges.
3. FILL UP ON FISH
In Japan, beef, poultry and pork is extremely expensive — but the price tag translates into serious health benefits. People turn to fish for their primary source of animal protein, Ferrero says. In fact, most studies put Japan among the top three nations in the world in terms of fish consumption. “Fish is a great lean protein source that is low in saturated fat and also comes packed with vitamins and anti-inflammatory substances like omega-3 fatty acids,” says nutrition coach Amy Dix. Those compounds may promote healthy weight management, as vitamin deficiencies can compromise energy levels and metabolic rate while research in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has linked inflammation and weight gain.
4. PRACTICE HARA HACHI BUNME
The Japanese island of Okinawa stresses a cultural habit known as hara hachi bu, which suggests that people should eat until they are 80 percent full. Dix considers this a tried-and-true weight-loss tip she passes on to her clients. “By stopping eating before we’re completely stuffed, we give our brain time to catch up with our belly,” she says. Most experts believe it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register when your stomach is full. So by giving yourself this 80 percent buffer, you reduce the likelihood that you’ll overeat during any given meal. This also explains why research consistently shows that eating slowly promotes weight loss: it gives your brain time to register when you’re full — before you’re stuffed.
5. MOVE REGULARLY
The Japanese diet doesn’t exist in a vacuum. In Japan, people don’t typically hit the gym like Americans do, but over all, they are still more active, according to Dix, who points out Japanese walk far more as a regular part of their lives due to the high costs of cars and the easy accessibility of public transportation. That simple extra daily movement impacts bone health, cardiovascular health, mental well being and body composition, among other health benefits.
6. DRINK TEA
Tea isn’t just a calorie-free alternative to the sugar-packed beverages consumed by many Americans, it’s also packed with antioxidants that can aid in weight loss and overall health management, says Dix. Green tea in particular is rich in epigallocatechin gallate (a.k.a. EGCG), which research published in Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise shows can boost your workout performance by increasing how much oxygen your body can use as fuel per minute.
7. EAT FERMENTED FOODS
Along with fermented soy, pickled foods are also a big part of the Japanese diet, which impacts gut health, according to Dix. While the gut microbiome is still a relatively new area of study, a 2015 study published in the journal Cell suggests that healthy changes in gut bacteria are linked to the conversion of energy-storing white fat to energy-burning brown fat. The result: weight loss.
8. START YOUR MEAL WITH SOUP
Or, just make soup the focus of your meal as it often is in Japan, Ferraro says. Eating more soup (as long as it’s not cream-based) is a solid weight-loss strategy, as it’s not just lower in calories than most solid foods, but also incredibly filling. Research published in Appetite even shows that eating a bowl of low-cal soup as a pre-meal “appetizer” reduces people’s total caloric intake to promote weight loss.
9. HITTING THEIR MACROS
The Japanese might not count their macronutrient and caloric intake like Americans tend to do, but they still do a great job at balancing carbohydrates, protein and fat at every meal, says Dix. Rice is certainly common in most Japanese meals, but contrary to what we see in Japanese restaurants here in the States, the serving sizes are often very small. Plus, that rice comes coupled with slow-to-digest, satiating ingredients like fibrous veggies and protein- and fat-rich fish and seafood. That’s why, even though people in Japan tend to eat much more rice than the average American, they have far fewer problems with blood sugar control.