Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Book Review: The Japan Diet

To me, veggies can be a scandalous pleasure. I don't have time to prepare fresh veggies every night, but when I do, I find the prepping and cooking to be therapeutic, almost like an instant meditation in your own kitchen. Washing, chopping and piling up cut vegetables feels wonderful. I take joy in the sound of water running out of the tap. I love the feel of cool water as I rinse the vegetables under running water. I like the splashes hitting against the vegetables in the sink.

The colours of fresh vegetables are magnificent. The rich purple of aubergine, the stunning orange and red peppers, the forest greens of broccoli and spinach. I love fresh herbs, too. When I snap a rubber band from around the stems and spread them out, the intoxicating aroma bursts forth. I swish the bunch around in the sink and the leaves are drenched with sparkling water droplets, the bright green gets brighter. I break off a young jagged leaf from a sprig with my fingers. It smells and looks gorgeous.

Such a moment fills me with peace and happiness. I stand still and think what a miracle.
~Naomi Moriyama, The Japan Diet

This isn't your ordinary weight loss book. It's more like 'Zen and the Art of Thinner Thighs'. I loved it!

The author, Naomi Moriyama, wrote The Japan Diet as a companion book to her best-selling Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat. (Which she wrote as a response to another best-selling book, French Women Don't Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano. I haven't read that one because French food is not exactly vegan friendly!) I also haven't read Japanese Women Don't Get Old or Fat--it's on request from the library and hasn't arrived yet. Can't wait to read it, though!

The book tells how the author was raised in Tokyo on a traditional Japanese diet, never had a weight problem at all, then when she moved to America in the 80s she packed on 25 pounds in only 8 weeks because of switching to a standard Western diet! When she went home for a visit one summer, she returned to eating her mother's home cooking and the 25 pounds fell away, which woke her up to the beauties of traditional Japanese eating. This book explains the principles of traditional Japanese home cooking, and how we can apply these principles even when eating Western food. The author calls this 'Japan-izing'.

In essence, Japanese home cooking consists of 'seven pillars': rice, fish, vegetables, soya, fruit, noodles and tea. The Japanese eat 10 times more rice than their Western counterparts, 4 times more fish, and less than half the amount of beef and pork. Japanese people eat less fruit and more veg than Westerners. They eat 6 times less animal fat. On average, their daily caloric intake is 680 calories lower than Westerners. In 2003, the average daily caloric intake of a Japanese person was 2768 (only 569 calories were from animal products), while the average British person ate 3450 calories (with 1057 of those coming from animal products.) (Figures supplied by United Nations FAO Balance Sheets).

Why should we care? Because Japanese women live in good health longer than any other women in the developed world, on average 85 years, and their obesity rate is only 3%. In the UK, the average life span for a woman is 69 and the obesity rate is nearly 25%. That's why!

The typical home-cooked Japanese meal is centred on rice and miso or clear soup, with three 'side dishes' of vegetables, fish and/or tofu, perhaps some pickles, followed by green tea. There is no main course, but balanced portions of different foods. All the foods are served on small individual dishes, not grouped together on one plate. You get proper serving sizes this way. A rice bowl holds one portion of rice. A soup bowl will only hold one portion of soup. Serving a meal Japanese style means automatic portion control! You can refill your rice bowl, but you'll be aware of how much you're eating. (We all know how easy it is to ladle out 3 or 4 servings of rice onto a plate and not realise how much we're eating).

This image shows a Japanese meal of (clockwise from upper left) carrot and mushroom, fried tofu in broth with vegetables, spinach and courgette, white miso soup with vegetables and a bowl of white rice with edamame and black sesame seeds. Each dish is actually quite small, as you can see when comparing the size to the soup spoon and chopsticks. But taken all together, it would be quite filling and well-balanced.

Here is how the author suggests you could 'Japan-ize' a Western meal:

*Serving of lean meat on a small plate
*Small side salad in its own bowl, dressing in tiny bowl on side
*Little plate with a piece of multigrain bread
*Medium size plate with mixed vegetables

This would mimic the Japanese eating style of having a multitude of little dishes, making the meal into a feast for the eyes and feel like an event. It's a neat idea!

The author of The Japan Diet is not saying Japanese food is better than Western food, or that Japanese people have cornered the market on healthy eating. There is a lot of really rubbish Japanese food. And Japanese women are notorious for being weight-obsessed and doing very unhealthy things to remain actually too thin. But if you apply the old principles of Japanese home cooking with our current knowledge of good nutrition (like the value of whole grains and the importance of a wide variety of vegetables, etc), you can hardly fail to equalise your weight and improve your overall health.

We have been eating Japanese food lately, and when we go to the Japan Centre on Friday, I intend to buy some Japanese dishes. We have already cleared a drawer in the kitchen for them! Can't wait--I will post photos!


Derek said...

I have loved your japanese inspired meals of the last two days, and I look forward to eating a lot more! For instance, the chirashi-zushi was really tasty - I gobbled that up in no time! Visiting the Japan Centre in London on Friday should be fun.

Don't forget to blog about your bread making. We have a pic somewhere on the PC for you to share with the world!

Fat-Free Vegan said...

Sounds very interesting, I'll have to see if our library carries this book! The meals look delicious. Don't know if my hubby would enjoy them as much as yours, but I think they look yum!