Why are people so Healthy in Japan?

When it comes to health, weight of course
is not everything, but since there are so
many health complications from being overweight
or obese, it’s safe to say that Japan with
an obesity rate of 3.5% is generally healthier
than America with an obesity rate of 30%.
Japan isn’t perfect, it has found itself
on the 2012 top 50 list for cancer rates,
but it comes in near the bottom of the list
at rank #48 while America is at rank #6.
I’m contrasting Japan with America simply
because these are the two countries I’ve
lived in.
Last time, I argued that convenient access
to reasonably healthy food in Japan helps
people stay thin.
But what else contributes to health?
In my last video, a lot of comments pointed
out that in Tokyo you end up walking everywhere,
which is true and should help people stay
Also, walking while eating is generally frowned
upon, so more walking means less snacking.
Public transportation is impressively convenient
and reliable – if you’re traveling around
Tokyo, your destination is almost always within a
20 minute walk from that area’s train, subway
or bus station.
However, this is just Tokyo.
Such a population dense part of Japan with
highly organized public transportation unsurprisingly
has the lowest rate of car ownership in Japan.
What’s interesting is that average body
mass index doesn’t change too drastically
prefecture to prefecture, and higher car ownership
doesn’t particularly correlate to higher
body mass index.
That said, more walking surely helps people
stay leaner and healthier, but it’s just
one piece of a bigger puzzle.
Next, the portion sizes in Japan are definitely
Here’s what some typical lunches look like.
When I first came to live in Japan in 2010,
I remember always being a little disappointed
with the size of the meals.
Of course bigger portions and even all you
can eat places are available, but Since food
is more expensive here, I had to just get
used to eating less food.
In 2014, people spent on average about 13.5%
of their income on food, which is more than
twice what people in America spent.
In 2013, 3682 calories were consumed per person
per day in America, but it was only 2726 calories
per day in Japan.
So Japanese people typically spend more money
for less calories.
Although, cheap calories from the sugar in
soda is probably a factor here as Americans
consumed more than 5 times the amount of soda
Japan did in 2011.
Next, the type of food being eaten over here
is of course different.
You may have noticed in the clips I just showed
that everything comes with rice.
The Japanese diet is by no means low carb,
but while Japan and America eat about the
same amount of the two grains Wheat and Rice
combined, Japan eats about half as much wheat
as America.
Cutting out wheat or gluten is usually suspected
to be only a fad, but gluten, found in wheat
and not rice, has been shown to have some
unique properties.
This 2012 Brazilian rodent study for example,
found that putting just 4.5% wheat gluten
in the diet increases body fat, inflammation,
and insulin resistance.
Work by Dr. Alessio Fasano and his team has
shown that the gliadin protein of gluten,
through the stimulation of a protein called
Zonulin, opens up the spaces between the epithelial
cells in your gut.
This allows gliadin fragments to leak through
the gut into the bloodstream, provoking an
immune response and inflammation.
However, since the reaction to gluten differs
person to person and the science is relatively
new and complex, it’s hard to say by what
degree wheat is worse than rice or how much
wheat is too much.
Next is the regular consumption of fermented
foods in Japan.
Élie Metchnikoff, winner of the 1908 Nobel
Prize in Medicine, was the first to propose
the theory that lactic acid bacteria are beneficial
to human health.
He suggested that “oral administration of
cultures of fermentative bacteria would implant
the beneficial bacteria in the intestinal
As research on the gut microbiome develops,
the health effects of certain gut microbes
and bacteria are becoming clearer.
A transplant of the microbes from one overweight
woman to another woman caused the receiving
woman to become obese, and it’s been found
that transplanting microbes from a confident
mouse to an anxious mouse will make that anxious
mouse more confident.
It’s estimated that there are 500 to 1000
species of bacteria just in your gut, and
it’s important to take care of the right
species of these bacteria.
There’s even research showing that certain
microbes produce certain neurotransmitters.
And, fermented foods are supposed to support
the microbes that we do want to have.
Plenty of fermented foods have been part of
the Japanese diet for a very long time.
There’s Natto, soy sauce, miso, fermented
fish and tsukemono which is pickled vegetables.
Kimuchi, a fermented food traditionally from
Korea, is also widely available in Japan.
Fermented foods like these are very easy to
find at the supermarket, and it’s common
to get a side of Japanese pickles with your
The next point is balanced meat consumption.
In 2017, total meat consumption in the U.S.
per capita was 98.4 kg where 51.4kg of meat
per capita were consumed in Japan.
American people per capita ate only 7 kilograms
of seafood in 2015, while Japanese people
ate 27.3 kilograms of fish and fish products
in 2014.
If the meat everyone was eating was antibiotic
free grass fed meat, high meat consumption
might not be a bad thing, but in any case
we can agree that a higher fish intake is
generally good for you.
And I don’t think it would surprise you
to hear that it’s really easy to get fish
wherever you are in Japan.
But there’s another kind of balance that
might be a factor – it’s the muscle meat
to organ meat ratio.
Organ meats have not usually been much of
a component of the American diet.
During World War 2, people were encouraged
to eat organ meats as part of the food rationing
Articles like this one in this 1943 issue
of Time Magazine sold organ meats as highly
nutritious and explained how to cook them.
The effort had some success in changing people’s
views on organ meats, but the effect, didn’t
last much longer than the war itself.
This is unfortunate because, as the time magazine
issue shows, organ meats are rich in certain
vitamins that muscle meat is not.
And, glycine, an amino acid found in skin,
cartilage and connective tissue has several
important health benefits- from being an anti-inflammatory
to improving skin elasticity, improving insulin
response, and it has been shown to ameliorate
oxidative stress and lower blood pressure.
This study found that you could get a 30%
increase in lifespan in rodents by restricting
methionine, an amino acid found in muscle
meat, or you could get a 30% increase in lifespan
by supplementing glycine.
Glycine supplementation also reduced fasting
blood sugar, fasting insulin and even triglycerides.
So it looks like the potential negative effects
from eating too much muscle meat can be counteracted
by simply consuming more of things like skin,
cartilage, connective tissue, and bone broth.
Now in America you can surely find organ meats
at some supermarkets, but in my 20 years in
America, organ meats were rarely on the menu,
though chicken skin is easy enough to find.
Over in Japan, organ meats aren’t eaten
every day of course, but they are more common.
You can find them at the supermarket, or at
Barbeque places and HorumonYaki places specialize
in organ meats,
you can also get them on skewers at Yakitori
Pork is a big part of Okinawan cuisine and
they don’t waste much of the animal
Another thing is green tea consumption.
Green tea has been found to have anti-inflammatory,
antioxidant and anti-cancer effects as well
as blood sugar lowering effects thanks to
the catechins in it.
Though, I’m betting green tea being healthy
isn’t new information to you.
Back when I lived in the states, the reason
drinking it didn’t become a habit was that
it was simply annoying to have to buy it at
the supermarket and then come home and make
Here, pretty much any restaurant serves it,
sometimes for free, and you can always buy
it from one of the many many vending machines
prevalent throughout the country.
What might be an even bigger benefit from
regularly drinking green tea and other teas
is that it keeps people from drinking sugary
Here, I rarely see people here drinking soda
with their meal, but I see people drinking
tea all the time.
One last point is the food being served to
young children.
In Japan, school meals are planned out by
a nutritionist, cooked mostly from scratch
from local ingredients, then served in the
classroom by the students and eating manners
are taught by the teacher.
The only drink allowed is milk, so students
can’t be drinking juice or other sweet drinks.
The meals aren’t always perfect, but they’re
a lot better than what I remember getting
from the cafeteria in grade school in the
There’s plenty more things about Japan I
haven’t mentioned here, some that I even
expect would be bigger determinants of health
like consumption of Processed Foods, Sugar
and processed corn, seed and soy oils.
In short, it seems that people in Japan eat
a lot more food rather than food like products.
Japan’s food culture has contributed a lot
to health over here, and I expect a lot more
could be learned from looking at other countries’
food environments.
This video was sponsored by Audible… which
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