Erica Angyal, the 40-year-old official nutritionist of Miss Universe Japan, is on a mission to bring balanced meals back to the Japanese table.
“It’s so ‘mottainai’ (a waste)” that a lot of Japanese women choose Western food over a traditional Japanese diet, said Angyal, who has lived in Japan for 14 years. “You have this incredible diet . . . but it seems to me all (the) amazing information, common sense and knowledge (on traditional food) is lost in a generation.”
Since 2004, the Australian nutritionist has been working in Tokyo with finalists of the beauty contest.
Although Japanese didn’t seem interested in Miss Universe back then, the contest grabbed the attention of the media and the public in 2006 when Kurara Chibana was ranked runnerup among international contestants, and a year later when Riyo Mori won the crown.
Consulting many Japanese women on a healthy diet, Angyal said she is concerned about their health because Japanese tend to focus solely on calories.
She said people in their 20s and 30s tend to skip breakfast and instead of balanced meals are turning to processed, refined foods.
“I think the problem here is (the belief that) being skinny is beautiful,” she said. “It’s not about being healthy. That’s why they’re so focused on the calories.”
Angyal said it is shocking that people do not even think about the ingredients and nutrition of the food they eat.
She recently interviewed doctors who are checking high school students pursuing a strict diet of Calorie Mate, the energy-supplement bar.
“They said the students’ livers were like that of 60-year-old alcoholics,” she said. “They don’t look at the consequences of what the nutrition is. Just the calories. Just the number.”
To promote the importance of a balanced diet, Angyal tries to speak up through the media. Last April she published the book “Sekai Ichi no Bijo ni Naru Daietto” (“Diet to Become the Most Beautiful Woman in the World”).
Unlike other diet books that focus on unique methods to lose weight, her book provides basic information on what women should eat and what they should avoid.
For example, she advises readers to pay more attention to what they eat instead of spending a lot on cosmetics, and avoid snacks containing trans fats and artificial additives as well as zero-calorie products with sweeteners.
The book sold 330,000 copies, even though Angyal didn’t expect such popularity. “When it came out, the publisher had no expectation. They thought, it’ll be great if it goes to the second print.”
Thanks to the popularity of the book, she followed with “Sekai Ichi no Bijo ni Naru Daietto Baiburu” (“Diet Bible to Become the Most Beautiful Women in the World”) in December.
Angyal said she hopes to provide scientific information on healthy diets because there is so much misinformation and misunderstanding in the media. “Like (the) banana diet . . . it doesn’t have scientific backing.”
She also pointed out there is a problem with the labeling of food ingredients because trans fats that derive from “vegetable fats” or “shortening” do not have to be listed under Japanese law.
It is believed that consuming trans fats increases the risk of coronary heart disease. Some U.S. states, Denmark and Switzerland regulate products containing trans fats.
According to Angyal, Japanese women are unknowingly eating trans fats in croissants, doughnuts and potato chips, products that don’t require such ingredients to be listed.
She said the reason she is so passionate about providing information on healthy foods and the Japanese diet is her interest in longevity, adding her own health-conscious parents were an influence.
Staying with a Japanese host family in Hita, Oita Prefecture, also helped her become interested in traditional Japanese cuisine.
Angyal was only 15 when she first spent about a year in Japan as an exchange student. It was not her choice to come but that of a student exchange organization. She had been studying French and initially hoped to live in France, Canada or Switzerland, but Japan became her “destiny.”
At the beginning, she experienced a huge culture shock.
“I didn’t speak the language. It was a traditional family. It was a very strict school. The food was completely different,” she said. “I had never eaten fish and vegetables for breakfast.”
She also said the Japanese way of communication was also a challenge for her. “So many things were unsaid and unexpressed. You know, it is implied,” she said. “I’m not telepathic, so I cannot guess!”
But toward the end, her stay turned out to be a “fantastic experience.”
“I’m so happy it was Oita. You have no choice but to speak the language (unlike in Tokyo),” she said, adding that learning a language is key to understanding the culture.
“I think you’ll have a completely different appreciation. It’s incredibly rewarding when you get to the deeper level of understanding culture and people,” she said.
She went back to Australia to finish high school. After that she pursued modern Asia studies, but halfway toward her degree she was offered a job at a Japanese company investing in resort properties.
The company sent her to Tokyo in 1992, where she worked for two years. But she always had a “passion” to study nutrition and health. To pursue a job and study at the same time, she moved back to Sydney with her husband, whom she met in Tokyo.
After finishing degrees in health science at Sydney University of Technology and nutrition at Nature Care College in Sydney, Angyal and her husband decided to return to Japan in mid-2000. “We really wanted to come back,” she said.
Angyal was writing a book in English back then, and also started an organic tea retail business. However, she gave it up around 2003 when it became apparent weather was playing havoc on crop production.
It took her almost four years to publish her first book: “Gorgeous Skin in 30 days.”
“I had so many rejections, just to get my books published,” she said. “So after so many years of blood, sweat and tears, it was amazing to see it come out. It was so gratifying.”
Based on her experience, she advises Japanese not to be afraid of trying new things, and to keep growing and learning.
“Life is about learning. It doesn’t matter how old you are,” she said.
Japanese men, she said, seem to be more “concerned with a fear of failure and rejection” while women are more eager to try new things.
“Women grew so much in the past 20 years, and men didn’t. . . . They have to grow up and keep up.”