Bowl of white rice

Why Aren’t Japanese People Fat?

Spend six months in Japan and then jump on a plane. Head for London, LA, Sydney.

Wherever.

Disembark, take a look around and try to keep your jaw from hitting the floor.

A single word rises unbidden from your subconscious.

Fat.

And it’s everywhere. From the guy at immigration who looks like he was poured into his booth, to the the woman stomping through baggage reclaim like a polyester tsunami.

How the hell did that happen? You’ve only been away 26 weeks.

Thank perception for that nasty little curveball.

In an all-fat world, obesity doesn’t exist

And you, my friend, have had your reference point of what’s normal reset to Japanese standards. And Japanese people tend not to be fat.

Even though they should be.

They really should.

Surprised? Then let’s find out why.

Stereotyping on steroids

You’ve read Shogun, heck you even remember watching Lee Van Cleef in 70s TV classic The Master. So, you’re pretty well-versed in all things Japan.

Tanaka has a small bowl of rice, some miso soup and a few flakes of fish. Washed down with green tea.

Three times a day, every day.

And you remember reading a forum post that Japanese people don’t do processed food. Although the poster forgot that Tokyo-based Ajinomoto has been pumping out MSG for close to a century.

They even make a handy little container to attach to your cell phone in case the unthinkable happens and you find yourself stranded in a MSG-free zone. So, rest easy – your fix of umami is guaranteed.

But don’t believe for a minute that MSG is to healthy eating what Keyser Söze is to good parenting. James Krieger examined the evidence and comprehensively slam dunked that myth over on Weightology.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

First, join me on a black-ops stealth mission to a supermarket in a farming town deep in rural Japan. You won’t find KFC, McD’s, Starbucks, Mr Donut, Mos Burger or Baskin-Robbins in these parts.

Let’s just say it’s a long way from Tokyo.

And excuse the quality of the photographs. A foreign dude toting a camera around girls in short skirts is right up there on the yikes meter.

No joke, upskirt photography is a big deal here.

As the Osaka District Court judge found out when he was caught in the act last year.

So, time to don the ninja outfit and infiltrate without detection.

Carbohydrate heaven

White rice

First target acquired, 10-pound sacks of rice. And not the brown stuff either – fiber and micronutrients be damned.

This is the real deal. Full on, white-rice starch pellets to load into the rice cooker that’ll be steaming away 24/7 in pretty much every home across the country.

Co-Op rice

Now, this isn’t a problem because Good Calories, Bad Calories hasn’t been translated into Japanese. Which means nobody realizes that all this white rice should be making them fat.

So, somehow, it doesn’t.

Wheat

OK, that was an easy target. We all know that Japanese folks – and their pancreases – have adapted to eating white rice.

Hell, it’s almost paleo to them.

But what about the silent assassin – wheat?

Co-Op noodles

Noodles. Ramen, soba, udon, and more.

Worse still, ramen is best eaten with some fatty pork and boiled egg. This guarantees that the fat gets dumped straight into your fat cells while you ride high on the insulin surge.

Fortunately, the Japanese are still in the dark about this. So remain apparently unaffected.

Close call.

But they’ve been eating noodles forever so they must’ve adapted to those too, right?  The problem’s got to be with other wheat products like white bread.

Which, of course, has about the same nutritional value as a surfboard. Assuming your surfboard contains iron, calcium, selenium, manganese, essential amino acids and would help keep you alive if all other food sources ran out.

But it’s a fact that white bread makes you fat. I know because I read it on the internet.

Unfortunately, nobody told Mrs Tanaka.

Co-Op bread

And the kicker is that a lot of this bread contains margarine. That’s Japanese efficiency at work right there – get your gluten and trans-fats in one convenient package.

But it’s not just bread. Let’s not forget the wheat in goodies like pasta, pizza and the Japanese favorite okonomiyaki. Which is eaten slathered in mayonnaise and Bulldog sauce.

An orgy of carbs, fats and additives.

OK, come on – this is all savory stuff. We know that Japanese folks don’t have much of a sweet tooth and that’s the reason they stay slim while we inch toward Zeppelin proportions.

So, it’s the lack of sweet foo…

Co-Op donuts

Damn. “Balance & Natural” or not it’s still a pancreas-annihilating combination of wheat and sugar.

So they seem to be immune to the effects of rice and wheat in its various incarnations.

But what about the starch grenade?

Potatoes

We’re on safer ground here. Japanese folks prefer low-GI sweet potatoes to the ginger-stepchild white variety.

Check and mate? Don’t believe it.

This little town happens to be famous for two things. Insane amounts of powder snow – over 50 feet a year – and potatoes.

Hell, the town mascot “Jagata-kun” is a skiing potato. And, in case you’re wondering, the spud on the snowboard is his girlfriend Jagako.

Jagata-kun and Jagako

Sometimes boiled, sometimes deep fried. But best in niku-jaga – meat and potatoes.

So much for Japanese food being all about raw fish.

OK, but what about heavily processed foods? I mean, a donut or some bread won’t kill you if you eat it only once in a while.

It’s the other stuff, the snack food – like potato chips – that Japanese folks just don’t have time for.

Co-Op potato chips

Or candy.

Co-op candy

Let alone cookies.

Co-Op cookies

Eagle-eyed connoisseurs among you will notice the Oreos on the third shelf from the top.

But what about processed meat? That’s so not Japanese – high calorie, high fat, no gills.

Co-Op processed meat

OK, this food thing is going nowhere. Maybe they’re drinking different stuff to us.

That’s got to be it.

Beverages

Right Dr Lustig, what about sugar-sweetened beverages. Aren’t Japanese folks all busy supping green tea while penning their haiku?

But check out the vending machines – they’re everywhere.

Bus stop in the middle of nowhere with no obvious sign of electric power? Vending machine.

And, according to Wikipedia, in Japan there’s one vending machine for every 23 people.

Co-op vending machine

And you’ll be relieved to know that this isn’t some lame sucrose- or glucose-sweetened stuff either. No, this is sweetened with the tongue-twisting ka-tou-bu-dou-tou-eki-tou 果糖ブドウ糖液糖.

Congratulations, you’ve just learned how to say “high-fructose corn syrup” in Japanese.

OK, last try. Alcohol.

We all know that Japanese are total lightweights. Something to do with folks in the west brewing beer while eastern folks made tea way back when drinking plain old water was a game of Russian roulette.

Finally, the case cracker. They don’t drink alcohol because they can’t metabolize it very well.

And, as alcohol has plenty of calories, that’s why they don’t get fat.

Co-Op beer

Don’t you believe it – Japanese folks buy beer by the case. And, boy, can they drink.

Not forgetting the shochu (20% alcohol) available by the gallon down at the local convenience store. Then there’s the sake, wine and whiskey.

This just doesn’t add up.

So why aren’t Japanese people fat?

Let’s just toss these out here.

1. Japanese people can’t eat very much

You’ve got to be kidding.

This is the country of the 食べ放題 (tabe-houdai) and 飲み放題 (nomi-houdai). Pay your money then eat and drink as much as you can.

Take my word for it, Japanese people know how to eat.

2. Japanese people have faster metabolisms

Let’s grab some numbers from this study where base metabolic rate (BMR) of 137 Japanese people was measured.

The mean BMR for the guys was 6.368MJ/day which is around 1520 Calories/day.

Remember, this was measured.

Now let’s plug the mean height, weight and age data from the study into the Mifflin-St Jeor equation used to estimate BMR.

Predicted BMR (Men): (10 x weight) + (6.25 x height) – (5 x age) + 5

= (10 x 68.3) + (6.25 x 170.5) – (5×36) – 5 = 1563 Cal/day.

Which is pretty much on the money.

And I’m unaware of any evidence that the thermic effect of food is greater in Japanese people or that they’re less efficient at moving than non-Japanese.

OK, maybe they move more than we do. Riding a bicycle to the station then walking from the subway to the office is part of commuter hell in the cities.

But we know that even 1000 Calories of extra movement is easily wiped out by a big latte, a donut and a couple of beers. And all that stuff, and more, is cheap and easily available here.

And supposedly it’s addictive.

So, what gives?

In general, Japanese people don’t like to stand out. Ignore the folks hanging out in Harajuku at the weekend, this is the country where the group is more important than the individual.

Where we have “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” the Japanese have “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”.

Other folks aren’t fat, so you don’t get fat.

So, maybe Japanese folks are just better at self-regulating food intake than we are. If your clothes start to feel tight you cut down on your caloric intake – you don’t buy bigger pants and work towards maxing them out too.

You don’t go looking for scapegoats, you put less food into your pie-hole.

Not forgetting that if you do need unusually large pants here you have the social stigma of going to an “outsize” shop. Oh, the shame of it.

Japanese have self-discipline in spades so perhaps they’re better at nailing this moderation thing than most other folks. But make no mistake, you could easily get fat in Japan.

Just as I did when I put on 20-pounds.

So, ultimately it looks like Japanese people choose not to be fat.

And this comes down to adjusting food quantity not any magical properties of miso soup or soy sauce.

This doesn’t mean Japanese folks aren’t willing to fall hook, line and sinker for some of the flakiest diet and exercise fads under the sun. Like the infamous “long breath diet“.

They can’t get enough of that stuff.

But, when it comes to food consumption, Dr Val Jones hit the nail on the head right here:

Eating less is more important than what you eat.

But we could just go on blaming carbs, slow metabolisms and wheat.

It’s easier that way.

– Tim

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