Sometime during the three months I have been in Japan, my pants got too big.
The legend of the Japanese diet is so widespread that no one doubted that I would lose weight. There were a number of theories as to why, mostly involving chopsticks: It’s harder to eat with chopsticks, so people eat less. Everything is in smaller portions to fit on chopsticks. All the food is sticky so it will be more filling, etc.
So, as someone who has come to Japan and fulfilled the weight-loss prophecy, here’s a few observations about eating in Japan.
Eating is Everything
Food is a centerpiece of life in Japan. There are holidays celebrating the day a child first chooses its own meal. Rice – and farming – form a number of the basic pictographs in the Kanji system. A look at any Japanese lunch box, from a kid’s to an adult’s at lunch break, reveals the intricate nature of designing a meal. Meanwhile, the government sponsors “traditional” Japanese farming methods, keeping the cost of rice somewhat extravagant through trade barriers and agricultural protectionism. One of its largest international disputes is about food: Particularly, hunting and eating whale.
Japan is serious about food. That brings with it a certain air of respectability. Even in an ice cream chain, you’ll find people taking real pride in their work. Eating out is a social experience, and every shop specializes in one group of food with a handful of varieties – an omelette shop, an udon shop, a sushi shop. This raises a culture of foodies who eat for taste and flavor and not the endless ulterior motives we have for eating in America.
The American Stomach
American food is kind of disgusting. It is heaping mounds of greasy deep-fried protein that leaves everyone queasy 20 minutes after swallowing. The grease is served with some sort of side, such as a deep-fried starch, which is the size of a Japanese meal. Couple this with an appetizer – another Japanese-sized meal, usually involving a greasy, deep-fried variation on the main course – and you have, in a single meal, two day’s worth of Japanese meals, before dessert.
Of course, all of this shit is delicious, and some recent research suggests that these combinations of fat, sugar and salt can be literally addictive.
So, how did I lose weight in Japan? It wasn’t with a shred of exercise, since my daily walk to work was cut in half. I didn’t work out and I haven’t deprived myself of anything. Nonetheless, here’s my attempt at reverse-engineering my new dietary habits.
Portions are smaller here, unless the food has nearly no caloric content. For example, you will get a pile of delicious shredded cabbage as a salad and tons of broth in the Udon. The noodles are just enough – in America, they’d rise above the bowl, I think. Here, nothing overflows.
It’s still filling. Rice is filling, noodles are filling, etc. The protein is about the same size as the salad. And you eat all of it at once, switching tastes between bites. The centerpieces are highly satisfying and low-calorie – one cup of udon noodles is 115 calories.
I ordered french fries at a kaitenzushi place and discovered that the caloric value of a standard, small french-fry was about a third of the meal’s total. One group of four split the small fry between them, making the fries calorically balanced on the food-to-shit ratio.
(Having calories on the menu, by the way, is a great motivator to eat healthy).
2. Fresh Food
Food in Japan is almost neurotically fresh. At the end of the night, any prepared food at the convenience store or supermarket is thrown into the trash in an orgiastic display of capricious wealth. The upside to this is that you get everything half-priced or more after 9 p.m. The other upside is that the food is always fresh.
Every convenience store has fresh salads ready around the clock for its healthy, cabbage-loving children, but at the cost of literally 19 million tons of wasted food on an annual basis.
On the micro-level, though, it’s remarkable to go to a gas station and find a fresh salad, fish, rice and sliced vegetables, because once I could only get day-old hot dogs, cookie-filled pastries and entire pies disguised as “snacks.” Restaurants do it the same way – an udon shop gives us their leftovers at the end of the night in exchange for showing up.
If a small bowl of shredded cabbage, corn and sesame seed dressing sounds like a shitty lunch, it’s because you live in America. You are visualizing brown iceberg lettuce mixed with bland, tasteless vegetables. There is a world beyond this, America.
Desserts in Japan range from the basic mochi (rice beat into a glutinous shell surrounding a bean paste) to the American-sized sundae behemoth (imagine ice cream, corn flakes, hot chocolate syrup, a full kit-kat, and as a topping, a soft-serve ice cream cone and a peanut butter cup).
Of course, the more common route here is the mochi – or a banana. Banana-as-dessert explains the difference between American and Japanese attitudes toward food. America says; “This is 1200 calories, so it’s bad for me – I’ll eat it after I finish eating.” Japan says; “This is sweet, so I’ll eat it after I finish eating.” Therefore, Americans eat fried peanut butter cups topped with ice cream while Japanese eat congealed rice wrapped around beans.
I have another theory about losing weight in Japan: Social engineering.
Bringing endless green tea (no sugar, no milk) to patrons reduces the odds that they will ingest half of their day’s calories through soda. Eating food hot – often boiling hot – and slurping noodles to cool them increases the heat in your stomach, causing you to feel full faster (rice also expands after being swallowed).
Also, the entire meal is served at once, in tiny dishes. Everything is a side dish. Having food laid out in front of you reduces the sense that you need to “finish” a part of the meal to “progress” to the “real” meal. You don’t feel like you have to eat all your potato skins to get to the hamburger.
Instead, it’s presented as a single, beautiful display of food, where each bite is presented to be savored (in turn slowing down your eating and increasing the amount you digest in the same time span, filling you up faster). Savoring the bite is the silver bullet. You eat slower and get full faster.
Adapting in America
I haven’t lost weight because of willpower, exercise, or any effort. I lost weight because I am surrounded by a culture of healthful eating. A diet of context.
I’ve been haunted by the idea of returning home and eating massive cream-cheese covered bagels and pastries for breakfast, pizza slices for lunch and then a dinner of gigantic, gravy-and-sugar-covered fried fats. It is easy to fall prey to normalized overeating in America, where portions are double the size you need and where corn syrup makes you hungry every time you’re thirsty.
It’s a shared delusion of American culture. Breaking out of cycles of horrific eating habits is an act of cultural liberation. Not only do you have to stop buying into “the system,” you also have to envision and realize an alternative method of surviving.
I’ll start by learning how to make udon.
I think the portion-to-cost ratio is a big factor in American dining. If I could get a meal that would fill me up and taste delicious (in your case, udon and cabbage or whatever) for like $3 to $5 bucks, I’d be sold. Problem is, for that same $5, I can get a footlong behemoth at Subway — more bang for my buck. When you’re a cheap-ass like me, that gets factored in heavily.
Amp up the price and matters get worse. If I’m dining out, I want to be served a ridiculously sloppy 1/2 lb. burger, a mountain of fries and some sort of filling side dish for the $13.95 plus tip, plus drinks.
It’s a stupid concept to think that I’d rather get more food than I can handle if I’m paying for it, but that seems to be the norm. Give me a decent portion for a decent price and I’m there.
Kegan – I think we also have a crazy tendency in America to feel guilty about not finishing massive portions, which the Japanese don’t have (clearly, since they toss out 19 million tons of it a year). If Americans could eat a half hamburger and throw the rest away, we’d be healthy and wasting food. Instead, we’re unhealthy and still wasting food, all because of some weird guilt complex about people going hungry, as if gorging ourselves on french fries will solve world hunger.
For a similarly insane reason, I would always buy soda in a vending machine, because it was a waste of plastic to buy bottled water. So I wasted plastic, and drank sludge.
I think Japanese have some guilt over not finishing portions–when I don’t finish my rice at school, I get looks and even admonishments to Mottanai, yo! But there is definitely less guilt over general food wastefulness. I REALLY agree with what Keegan said–there seems to be a strong American focus on value and bang for the buck. Americans want to be sure that they are getting the most possible food for their dollar, which is why the psychotic portion sizes of places like the Cheesecake Factory are culturally acceptable. That, combined with the long term conditioning to “clean your plate” is a deadly combination.
I think Japanese portion sizes are a major part of it, and I also agree with what another commentor below mentioned–foods seem to have less preservatives and additives. High Fructose corn syrup is not in Every. Single. Thing.
Well, this is already longer than I meant, but I could go on forever on this topic…
“Day-old hot dogs, cookie-filled pastries and entire pies disguised as ‘snacks.’” … You’re talking ’bout my Main Street Circle K, boy!
Does this mean you’re not going to go out for plates of poutine from Dysarts any more? :(
The cost ratio is my biggest problem. I started making Bento for my husband to take to work, but the cost of buying fresh food wasn’t feasible. For 10$ I can get fresh food from the market every three days, or I could just eat 2$ fast food every night.
I really like the points you make, I’m hoping to learn some things about healthy eating during my stay in Japan. =]
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I found this on JapanLike – glad I did… Really makes you think that culture has a big part to play in the obesity problem that the USA faces.
I’m taking you out for a bacon cheeseburger at Rosie’s in Portland when you get back.
that might explain this
Lucky you! I gained a few pounds upon coming here because I ate the school lunch every day. All that rice. I did want to ask you the other day if you’d halved in size but I didn’t want to be awkward, so now I’ll announce that I noticed in another public forum. :)
Guilty but owning it: This was the first full entry I dove into and read all of without skimming around (sorry, I’m just bad at blogreading, period). That said, I fucking loved it. Will pass on. On to finish the Mad Men jam.
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You hit this right on. It’s this and the amount of walking one does in Japan. They basically are a pedestrian society in the bigger cities. I was just in Tokyo for ten days and I could tell the difference. I think also the food in Japan that is made there has way less preservatives and additives. I noticed an over difference in how I felt physically.
I live in California but in an area with Japanese and Asian markets. I love eating the food they have but the price is higher than in Japan. It’s too bad the attitudes here are so different. The US became a nation where fast food and pre-made meals are the norm and marketed like there isn’t any other choices.
I’ve only been to Japan a few times but boy do I miss their attitude towards food.
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