Why Japan is the land of the healthiest children
Japanese children are destined to have the longest lives of all. A new book reveals their secret
Published 30/09/2015 | 09:30
They may be renowned for sushi and sumo wrestlers - and, more recently, for their brilliance at rugby - but the Japanese should be celebrated for a lesser-known phenomenon: being the healthiest people on the planet.
According to a major global analysis in The Lancet, a child born in Japan today will have a longer, healthier life than one born in any other country.
The study, published in 2012, ranked 187 nations by healthy life expectancy - a measure of how many years a child might be expected to live in "full health". It found that Japan had the healthiest life expectancy for both sexes.
Experts think there are several reasons for this achievement, including an impressive health care system with universal coverage, strong public health programmes and a more cohesive social structure. But according to the authors of a new book on the subject, Japan's victory in the "World Health Olympics" is also due to its lifestyle - in particular, a unique approach to food and exercise.
Its co-authors, Tokyo-born Naomi Moriyama and her American husband, William Doyle, say families everywhere can learn from the Japanese way of doing things, without necessarily switching to chopsticks or regularly consuming sushi (although some of the book's recipes sound delicious). The secret, they argue, is to "tweak" our own habits to bring them into line with the Japanese way of life.
"We got interested in this when The Lancet study came out and, of course, because of my background," says Moriyama, who grew up on her family's farm in rural Japan and now lives with her television-producer husband in Manhattan's Upper East Side with their son Brendan, aged eight. "When I had a child of my own, I wanted to help my son enjoy healthy eating patterns and I needed a book like this," she says.
Delving deeper into Japan's health-giving secrets, the couple travelled widely in the country with their son, looking for answers in homes, schools, research institutions, supermarkets and farmers' markets. They interviewed some of the world's leading experts on child health and nutrition, as well as a cross section of Japanese mothers of young children living in New York.
Moriyama and Doyle concluded there were many probable reasons why the Japanese enjoyed good health, including regular comprehensive health check-ups, a cultural stress on hygiene, and sharp reductions in infectious diseases and infant mortality in the past 30 years.
But they also found that the traditional Japanese lifestyle was in line with today's advice on staying healthy, with its emphasis on eating more fruit and vegetables and less fat (especially saturated fat), meat, dairy and sugar, as well as taking regular physical exercise.
"Japan isn't immune to Western influence, and Japanese children face the same challenges as children around the developed world face - a plethora of high-fat, high-sugar convenience foods and too much screen time," says Moriyama.
But Japan is "holding the line" on one of the biggest modern health problems: it has the lowest prevalence of childhood obesity in the world. So what are Japanese families doing right - and what, if anything, can we learn from them?
Moriyama and Doyle's advice is to give family food habits a "Japanese-style tweak", with more emphasis on nutrient-dense vegetables and less on meat, fat, dairy and sugar. A typical Japanese meal, they point out, will be vegetable-based; flavoured with strips of fish, chicken or beef, it might also contain water chestnuts, mangetout, mung sprouts, pak choi, mustard greens, rice and herbs.
Not only are such vegetables packed with nutrients, but being "water rich" they also have "filling power", protecting against overeating and obesity.
In particular, they advise, rice is far lower in calorie density than, say, bread or pasta, leaving less room for kids to crave junk foods: "Rice is the bedrock of East Asian cooking," says Doyle. "Once cooked, its high water content gives a feeling of fullness.
"The Japanese eat less - but they do not feel deprived. "The style of eating means they feel full and energised."
Yet as the book makes clear, Japan is a nation in love with healthy, delicious food. Moriyama recounts how her mother, Chizuko - a "kitchen goddess" - taught her a lifelong pattern of "food joy". Children are taught, both at school and at home, how food is grown, prepared and ritually eaten, usually with the family, all of which makes for healthy eating patterns.
Sweet treats, crisps and ice cream are not demonised, she says, but with smaller kitchens and less storage space, neither are they kept in large quantities at home, in temptation's way. "A tip for Western parents is not to keep treats in the house but enjoy them occasionally, when you are out with your children," she says.
Japanese society is not perfect: smoking is still common (although discouraged), as is excessive drinking, and a high salt intake is associated with stroke and stomach cancer. Japan's suicide rate is also comparatively high, due to financial problems and isolation among a growing elderly population.
Fast-food outlets such as McDonald's and KFC are booming (although they serve smaller portions than in the West), resulting in increases in BMI and cholesterol. All of which means much needs to be done if Japanese children are to keep pole position. Moriyama admits their son loves Western-style food, too.
"Living in New York, he is exposed to pizza, pasta, hamburgers and fries - and I do make all of that, though I try to use healthier ingredients," she says. "Just yesterday I picked him up from school and gave him a cookie. But as well as chocolate chips, it contained chia seeds, banana, grated apple and even leafy green veg." (The Daily Telegraph)