Health in Japan: A new book suggests Western parents can learn a thing or two from Asian nation on raising healthy children

September 30, 2015 6:21 pm

 

may be a rising force in rugby but it is an established leader in healthy living. Picture / AP

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. A new book suggests Western parents can learn a thing or two from Asian nation on raising healthy childre.

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 ”. It found that Japan
had the healthiest life expectancy for both sexes.
Experts think
there are several reasons for this, including an impressive healthcare
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 thanks 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. 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, 8.
“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, meat, dairy and sugar, as well as taking regular physical
exercise.
Japan has the lowest prevalence of childhood obesity in the world.
So what are Japanese families doing right – and what, if anything, can parents 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, mange-tout, mung sprouts, pak
choi, mustard greens, rice and herbs.
Vegetables are packed with
nutrients and, being “water rich”, they 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.”
It’s not just the type of food but the
style of eating that appears to promote good health. The ancient
Japanese saying: “He who has his stomach full only 80 per cent will not
need a doctor” sums up the sense of moderation.
“The style of eating means they feel full and energised,” says Doyle.
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, chips 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.
The way food
is served is also key: each person is given a small bowl, and several
dishes – vegetables, rice, miso, fish or meat – are served communally,
also in moderately sized bowls. Moriyama points out that this makes it
easier for children to sample a variety of food. “Our tradition of
communal eating encourages a healthy, relaxed attitude; it’s not a
question of a child having to finish everything they are given.”
Also,
the school-lunch programme – originally intended to feed hungry
children in the wake of Japan’s post-war economic devastation – hasn’t
changed much in the past 40 years. Healthy dishes are based on locally
produced ingredients; there are no vending machines.
There is
another basic principle keeping millions of Japanese children healthy:
walking to school and back, at all ages. “It means that the
recommendation that children engage in at least 60 minutes of moderate
to intense exercise is built into their daily lives,” says Doyle.
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, because of financial problems and isolation among a growing elderly population.
Fastfood
outlets such as McDonald’s and KFC are booming, 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.”Telegraph Group Ltd

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