Is Eating a Japanese Diet Healthy?

Young woman surprised at sushi

In general, Japanese people have a reputation for being slim – which makes the idea of a Japanese diet plan pretty appealing.

In fact, Japan only has a 3% rate of obesity, compared to around 32% for America (1).

But, is this because of differences in biology or does the Japanese diet plan have something to do with it? Realistically, the answer is a mixture of both and the Japanese diet does play a key role in maintaining a low weight.

Before we get started though, I want to make one thing clear. In this post, I’m focusing on the general concept of diets that people in Japan consume.

I know there are a few diet plans out there that attempt to take elements from the Japanese culture to create a weight loss plan. I’ve even seen one diet just called the Japanese diet, even though it isn’t even remotely related to Japan. I’m not going to be talking about those types of diets.

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Foods in the Japanese Diet

Most of us are probably familiar with at least some of the foods used in a Japanese diet.

For one thing, the diet is heavy in rice and rice tends to act as a replacement for bread and for potatoes in many dishes.

Dairy is also very uncommon in the diet.

Servings of Japanese food

Instead, dishes frequently make use of fish, soy and vegetables, while noodles also feature heavily.

Chicken and beef are sometimes included in meals, but these tend to be in small portions.

In many ways, this makes for a fairly simple diet, especially as cooking tends to be light (2).

Additionally, sweets are fairly uncommon in Japanese culture and desserts are different than we are used to.

Often the sweetness of desserts is relatively subtle and desserts are served in small portion sizes.

Now, the diet does leave out some food groups that we’re used to as part of our own diets, but that doesn’t make the Japanese approach an unhealthy diet.

For one thing, this particular diet is one that people in Japan have been following for a long time and it has clearly offered significant health benefits.

The diet is also a good option for anyone gluten intolerant, as gluten is not particularly common in Japanese meals.

Behaviors in the Japanese Diet Plan

One of the key aspects of a Japanese diet plan isn’t what you eat, but how you eat it.

Japanese food tends to be presented in small plates and dishes, and food often has small serving sizes.

There is a lot of emphasis on the visual appearance of food.

This means that people tend to take more time admiring their food (‘eating with their eyes’), which slows down how quickly they eat.

Additionally, people focus on eating until they are around 80% full (3).

All of those areas are pretty much the opposite of American approaches to food.

In fact, our American approaches to food can be really unhealthy – and there is a lot we can learn from Japan and from other cultures.

So, let’s have a look at this.

The Impact of Hunger Signals

Sushi in a green bowl

Weight loss advice tends to focus on eating good food, eating when you are hungry and not eating when you aren’t.

That advice is pretty logical, yet people find it extremely difficult to follow, especially in America and similar cultures.

So, why is that?

One reason is that we don’t really know when we’re full.

It takes time for our bodies to process hunger signals.

A common estimate is that it takes around 20 minutes for a person to know when they are full.

Yet at the same time, people often eat quickly and don’t stop until they feel full.

This makes overeating extremely easy and people often don’t even know that they’re doing it.

Eating slowly and mindfully is sometimes promoted as a way around this issue.

The idea is to make a meal last longer and to focus on enjoying what you are actually eating.

This could involve chewing your food more slowly or it could involve simply taking more time between bites.

I’ve seen people achieve this by intentionally having a sip of water between every bite or by eating with friends and keeping the conversation flowing.

I bring this up because the Japanese approach to eating and serving food naturally lends itself to slower eating.

One reason for this is simply that the food tends to be very pretty and people take the time to enjoy that element of the food (4).

Portion Sizes and Food Intake

Girl thinking with a salad

Portion sizes play a pretty significant role in weight loss.

In general, people tend to eat the food in front of them, regardless of whether they need to eat that much or not.

This often means that people eat too much.

After all, we often think we are hungrier than we actually are, so we frequently give ourselves a large portion of food.

Far too often we will eat much more of that food than we actually need.

That issue is why some people turn to small plates when they try to lose weight.

If you took a portion of food and put it on a normal-sized plate, you would often find yourself left with a significant amount of white space.

That makes your overall portion seem smaller and it can feel like you didn’t have enough.

Yet, if you put that same portion on a smaller plate it looks different.

Blue Plates

That change also has an effect on how you perceive food.

Research shows that simply moving from large to small plates helps people decrease the amount they eat.

But, making that switch actually doesn’t affect satisfaction or satiation (5,6).

Additionally, decreasing portion sizes can help people to lose weight (7). And, as VitaMedica points out, effective portion control doesn't have to be difficult

Implications for the Japanese Diet

The American approach to food often involves eating large portion sizes and eating quickly.

People also tend to be distracted when they eat.

All of those patterns make it extremely easy to overeat.

In contrast, the Japanese approach to meals promotes slower eating and smaller portion sizes.

In reality, you can actually take those concepts and apply them to your own diet.

Serving meals on smaller plates is a good place to start, as is turning off the television and other distractions when you eat.

A good general rule is to serve yourself less food than you think you need (and put any leftovers out of sight and out of reach).

If you really do find that you are still hungry a while after eating your serving, then you can go back and get yourself more. But, often you will find that you are satisfied with a much smaller amount than you expected.

Another key concept is mindful eating, which involves a greater focus on the experience of eating, as well as on the hunger signals that your body provides. For example, the site Psychology Today talks about mindful eating and how it is relevant to you.

Take Home Messages

Japanese food

There are two main parts of a Japanese diet plan.

One part is what food you eat and the other part is how you eat it.

Both of these components are important for weight loss.

Now, you certainly don’t have to follow a Japanese diet to lose weight.

In fact, many people won’t find the Japanese diet suitable or appealing for their own lives.

But, you can take away some of the key messages of this type of diet and apply them to your own diet.

You’ll be surprised at how effective just making little changes, like decreasing portion size, can actually be.

Likewise, increasing your intake of rice and fish, and decreasing bread and flour intake, can also be beneficial for health.

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Have you tried a Japanese-style approach to food? If so, how did it make you feel and did it help with weight loss?

2 thoughts on “Is Eating a Japanese Diet Healthy?”

  1. My family is thinking of going to a Japanese restaurant for dinner this weekend and we haven’t had much experience with Japanese food, so I am glad that I found this article. It is interesting that you say the Japanese approach to means promotes slower eating and smaller portion sizes. I think that this would be a benefit so that our family can spend a long time at the restaurant chatting and enjoying being together. Also, the smaller portions are great because a few of my siblings are trying to lose weight.

    • It seems like it would be particularly enjoyable in a family setting. The style is certainly interesting and would work well for conversation.


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