Woman eating a plate of sushi to match the Japanese diet

What Is the Japanese Diet? Everything You Should Know & Recipe Ideas

Published: October 2021 | Updated: November 2021

Living for over a hundred years seems like something out of a science fiction novel—unless you live in a “blue zone.” Not to be confused with “The Twilight Zone,” blue zones are regions of the world where an unusually high portion of the population includes centennials. Not only do residents of these blue zones live longer, but these centennials often enjoy a healthy life without experiencing age-related health concerns.

There are five such zones, and one of them is Japan. Okinawa, in particular, boasts a high life expectancy.

A growing body of research reveals that the secret behind Okinawan’s longevity may lie within their eating patterns. While modern Japanese cuisine has become Westernized over the years—adding sugars, dairy, poultry, eggs— people in Okinawa are known for following a traditional Japanese diet more closely.

So what do those foods include? A Japanese diet plan consists of small dishes of various seasonal, nutrient-rich foods, with minimal saturated fats, added sugars and processed foods. Daily consumption of nutrients like fucoidan found in seaweed may be responsible for the high centenary rate in Japan. This way of eating has been shown to support digestion, cardiovascular health, healthy weight management, longevity and overall health.

Why is the Japanese diet so healthy? Here’s everything you need to know.

What is the Japanese diet?

Woman eating a traditional Japanese dish full of rich and wholesome food

The traditional Japanese diet, also known as Washoku, is rich in fresh, wholesome foods like raw fish and seafood, colorful vegetables, steamed rice (cooked without any butter or oil), seaweed, fermented foods and green tea.

Instead of serving every ingredient mixed up in one big plate, the food is displayed in colorful, portion controlled, side dishes and plates. This nutritious and handsomely presented meal prompts you to take turns having bites of every dish, slowly savoring every color, flavor, and texture.

The umami taste that’s so characteristic of the savory meals is achieved by enhancing the flavor of each food item rather than disguising it with heavy sauces, which allows for a harmonious blend of each dish.

What’s so special about this way of eating? It turns out that the different aspects behind Washoku—the seasonal foods, the smaller portions, the beautiful arrangement—all result in bringing mindfulness to your meals. In other words, you enjoy the visually pleasing, health-promoting nutrients in small portions and your brain has enough time to realize your body is full. Eating until you’re only “80% full” or hara, hachi, bu, is an extremely important aspect of this practice.    

Another defining piece of the Japanese diet is respecting nature’s cycles by sustainably harvesting produce and foods as they reach their peak throughout the different seasons of the year.

Why is the Japanese diet healthy?

Woman putting away groceries and food that follow the Japanese diet

Here are three ways the Japanese diet plan supports whole-body health.

  1. Japanese diet for longevity—

    A 20-year follow-up cohort study analyzed data from 14,764 Japanese men and women ages 40 to 79 found that higher adherence to a Japanese diet was associated with a longer life span. 
  2. Japanese diet for healthy weight—

    By following the principles of this traditional way of eating, you slowly implement daily habits that not only promote whole-body health but—as your body finds balance—result in a healthy weight range.
  3. Japanese diet for digestion—

    Consuming fermented foods and dietary fiber at every meal helps promote a healthy microbiome (composed of the trillions of microorganisms that live in your gut), essential for supporting the friendly bacteria that promote balance and digestive health.

Staples of the Japanese diet plan

Man eating side dish with steamed rice and tofu along with main dish

A Japanese meal consist of a main dish combined with side dishes that will typically be soup, a staple food and vegetables.  What would a typical meal look like?

  • Main dish:

    Features lean protein from fish, seafood, tofu or natto. Red meat or poultry is usually served in smaller portions.
  • Soup:

    Made with fermented soy stocks, typically miso soup with seaweed and shellfish, or vegetable or noodle soups.
  • Staple food:

    Typically, steamed rice, but soba, ramen or udon noodles are also popular options.
  • Side dishes:

    Whether they are steamed, raw, boiled, sauteed, grilled or pickled, side dishes include a variety of vegetables, wild plants, seaweed and pickled fruits.

Japanese diet secrets: 4 nutrients

  • Fermented soy

    —A higher intake of fermented soy products like natto has been associated with a lower mortality rate and has been shown to support cardiovascular health.
  • Seaweed

    —The nutrients found in seaweed have been shown to have brain-protective properties, protect cells from oxidative stress and promote a healthy inflammatory response.
  • Green tea

    —It’s always soothing to sip on a nice hot cup of tea, but if brewing several cups a day isn’t for you, you can always add EGCG polyphenol-based supplements to your wellness routine to get the antioxidant-rich nutrients of green tea.  
  • Omega-3 fatty acids

    —Regularly eating fatty fish offers an array of health benefits because they are rich in nutrients like EPA and DHA, well-known to promote heart and brain health (and more). But if eating fish every other day isn’t for you, you can always add a fish oil supplement to complement your wellness journey.

Foods to avoid

When you follow the Japanese diet plan, you will eat fewer of these foods:

  • Eggs
  • Dairy
  • Red meat (beef, pork)
  • Poultry
  • Saturated fats
  • Processed or sugary foods

Will I lack any nutrients while on a Japanese diet?

The traditional Japanese diet promotes balance between physical activity, proper hydration and a variety of foods rich in antioxidants, lean protein, vitamins, minerals and healthy fats. The key is having larger portions of grains, vegetables, and fish and smaller portions of red meats, dairy, saturated fats and sugars.

Ideally, you shouldn’t experience any nutritional deficiencies if your daily meals consist of the nutrient-rich foods that are at the heart of Japanese cuisine. But having a strategic nutritional plan always helps breach any gaps.

You can take a blood test for any food sensitivities, and always speak with your doctor before making changes to your diet.

Quick & easy recipe ideas to follow a Japanese diet

Woman making sushi roll as a way to add more Japanese food staples to meals

The health benefits from the Japanese diet plan are unequivocal. But do you have to eat cooked-from-scratch meals and nary a single gram of sugars or other foods you enjoy?  Not at all!

As author Naomi Moriyama says, you don’t have to follow the Japanese diet strictly—just add more fish, veggies, and fermented foods to your meals, and drink more green tea instead sugary drinks. “All these little things add up to a very healthy way to eat.” 

Don’t know where to start? Check out some ideas for how to add more seaweed benefits to your meals—from seaweed salad to a seaweed burrito! Or, learn how to make your own natto, a popular Japanese delicacy made from fermented soy.

Whether you add green tea to your evenings or replace your cooking oil with EVOO (extra virgin olive oil), making small changes in your daily habits can help you enjoy the longevity-promoting benefits of the traditional Japanese diet.

References

By: Jessica Monge, Health & Wellness Writer

Jessica Monge has a bachelor's degree in biological sciences & neuroscience and a master's degree in comparative studies and related languages from Florida Atlantic University. She worked as a tutor, freelance writer and editor before joining Life Extension as a Copywriter.

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD