Why are Japanese children the healthiest in the world?

by

Special To The Japan Times

In a country where food culture permeates all aspects of life and society, it is perhaps unsurprising that Japan leads the “World Health Olympics,” in the words of Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle. In their book, “Secrets of the World’s Healthiest Children,” the pair proselytize for the traditional diet of Japanese families, revealing how Japan manages to stay so healthy, and how you can, too, with tidbits of parenting advice thrown in.

The book opens with Japan’s podium finish: the results of a comprehensive 2012 study backed by the Gates Foundation and published in the medical journal The Lancet, which showed that of the world’s nations, children born in Japan can expect to have the healthiest lives and live the longest. The U.S. was ranked 32.

Moriyama, speaking to The Japan Times from Finland where her husband is a Fulbright scholar, explained that they wrote the book firstly for themselves. Like many exasperated first-time parents, when their son was born they turned to books and experts to glean advice on everything from sleeping to discipline. However, when it came to food, Moriyama really felt like she needed extra guidance, which is why she turned her attention toward home.

“I was away from Japan, (from) my mother and my sister,” Moriyama says, “and I really felt that I needed to go back to Japan and understand why Japanese children had the healthiest diets.”

Promoting the Japanese diet is a cause to be championed and Moriyama and Doyle make for convincing crusaders, despite my initial scepticism of a whiff of exceptionalism — the idea that Japanese food is better than food anywhere else. Rather, the authors simply focus on beneficial approaches toward food and exercise.

Their book’s obvious objective is promoting health, which the authors say comes from eating more plants and fruit, less sugar, salt and processed foods, serving correctly sized portions on smaller plates, and a call to celebrate food while being able to practice flexible restraint. But there is another theme, one that echoes back to an era before the digital age, when we were all less distracted by phones, tablets, alerts and, of course, the ubiquitous TV; an era when kids were ferried to school by their own two feet. Moriyama, reflecting on her childhood in Kawasaki, urges us to think back to the past, when outdoor games and exercise were part of a daily regimen. Some of the book’s “secrets” are simply valuable lessons that have been lost in our hyper-busy age.

Another interesting — if slightly New Age concept — that Moriyama and Doyle write about is the wrap-around family lifestyle: in essence, a holistic outlook that involves children learning about all aspects of food, but one which also works on a smaller level.

To do this Moriyama advises stocking your refrigerator and cupboards with the food you want to eat and serve your family.

“This way if your child wants to open the cupboard and eat something they will be presented with healthy options,” she says, acknowledging that habit can be the best of teachers. “As they get older, they are exposed to things that you want them to eat.”

Asked to distill the book’s secrets into one piece of advice for parents Moriyama takes a long pause.

“For us, it’s really about having moderate restraint — meaning don’t demonize food,” she says. “Food is to be enjoyed with your family and people you love. It’s OK to have treats once in a while, in moderation.”

For parents in Japan, much of what Moriyama and Doyle cover will be familiar. Here, the school lunches are healthy, students must clean up after themselves, and they can get their hands and aprons dirty cooking and planting vegetables.

Even the commonplace sight of yellow-hatted school kids being chaperoned to school is singled out for praise in the book. But, for parents unfamiliar with this landscape, Moriyama and Doyle’s book could serve as a useful explainer, and the 50 pages of Japanese recipes aimed at families could also prove invaluable.

Whether Japan’s so-called secrets gain a worldwide following remains to be seen. The idea of improving health by traveling to school on foot rather than by car is just not practical in many cities around the world — even before you consider menaces like stranger danger. However, as a school health director interviewed in the book tells Moriyama, when it comes to school lunches, “Japan’s standpoint is that school lunches are a part of education, not a break from it.”

Japan may be obsessed with food, but as Moriyama says, “It’s a healthy obsession.”

  • JoyBoots

    Are Japanese children the healthiest in the world? I do not believe this.

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      Maybe they are, if mental health issues are excluded.

    • Ari Evergreen

      I’m sure you can do better than the “comprehensive 2012 study backed by the Gates Foundation and published in
      the medical journal The Lancet, which showed that of the world’s
      nations, children born in Japan can expect to have the healthiest lives
      and live the longest”. When you’ve completed your study, report back to us!

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    ‘Why does Japan have the healthiest children in the world?’
    Probably for the same reason that Japan has the highest ratio of people over 100 years old; IT DOESN’T!
    Japan just makes these claims due to fudged data analysis, or analysis of unsoundly collected unsound data!

    • Johnny LoveFive

      It’s not even Japanese people who are claiming this, it’s Okinawan, and Okinawan don’t like being called Japanese! Okinawa has its own history of the Ryukyu kingdom. Due to Japan conquering it, calling it their own, they claim they have more centenarians, which in reality, they don’t if they’re using the vast majority from Okinawa. Go to Okinawa, and tell older Okinawan people, “you’re Japanese!” then prepare to duck as they take a swing at you!

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        Except that, the Okinawans have long been renowned for being slow to anger, kind, and helpful(*). Which might have something to do with living a long life?
        (* according to any number of accounts from foreign visitors – including many western sailing ships)

  • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

    ‘Why does Japan have the healthiest children in the world?’
    Probably for the same reason that Japan has the highest ratio of people over 100 years old; IT DOESN’T!
    Japan just makes these claims due to fudged data analysis, or analysis of unsoundly collected unsound data!

  • Santiago Duran

    It’s is only directed to the biological level, not the mental. Read before any stupid comment.

    • disqus_vBekJrf7g5

      I was replying to the other guys comment. Your comprehension skills are poor.

  • hanomansama

    Excluding, of course Fukushima where cancer is exploding after 2011.

    • Jonathan Fields

      [Citation Needed]

  • hanomansama

    Excluding, of course Fukushima where cancer is exploding after 2011.

  • Jonathan Fields

    Could it possibly be because they let kids run around and be kids? I think the club system in junior high is silly (Two-a-days AND cram school? For real?!), but overall Japanese schools are really good at getting kids to be active. I have a hard time believing the diet of rice and rice is great, but it certainly can’t hurt as much as French fries and whatnot. Fatty fat Americans can learn a thing or two.

  • Jonathan Fields

    Could it possibly be because they let kids run around and be kids? I think the club system in junior high is silly (Two-a-days AND cram school? For real?!), but overall Japanese schools are really good at getting kids to be active. I have a hard time believing the diet of rice and rice is great, but it certainly can’t hurt as much as French fries and whatnot. Fatty fat Americans can learn a thing or two.

  • KenjiAd

    Like other complex medical conditions, obesity is the result of both environment (meaning non-genetic external factors including diet, exercise, etc) and genes. Perhaps the genetic markup among Asian populations confers a lower propensity for obesity than people in other regions. I wouldn’t give too much credit to Japanese-style diet, although it might be one factor.

    • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

      Genes – Asians in the US have lower BMI, but on the other hand suffer from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes at lower BMI than Euro ethnics [harvard ethnic-differences-in-bmi-and-disease-risk].
      An objective test might be tracking people switching between Japanese and US diets. My informal survey of such data indicates people tend to put on more weight on a US diet (myself included).

      On the other hand “metabo” is a word heard often in the media – and way too many people smoke.

      • KenjiAd

        That’s an interesting test indeed. :-) It might also be interesting to examine BMI of adopted children from Asia who grew up in the US.

        Anyways, it’s really not easy to isolate genetic components from environmental ones (classic “nature vs nurture” thingy), when lots of compounding factors are involved.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        So you have these Japanese and US traditional diets and supposing you can decide what they are then perhaps you can compare them – but then there is the issue of deviation and lack of adherence to these diets among children and how it can be measured.

        Below is something from the US CDC. So clearly this is either something about increasing deviation from a standard diet, or a change in standard diet – does it matter which you call it? And there may be some aspects of the diet which are hidden, e.g., hormones and antibiotics used to increase livestock yield (make animals gain weight) may also result in making people gain weight after they eat the animals.

        It is also reported that in some poorer US population groups sports drink is added to added to baby milk – it sounds more like poison than diet.

        Childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
        The percentage of children aged 6–11 years in the United States who were obese increased from 7% in 1980 to nearly 18% in 2012. Similarly, the percentage of adolescents aged 12–19 years who were obese increased from 5% to nearly 21% over the same period.
        In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    So all the kids I see in McDonalds, Saizeria etc, chowing down on deep-fried, greasy crap; as they scratch at their nasty, flaky skin problem; dog-tired as they were at the station at 5:30 A.M. for their 2 hour trip to school and are grabbing a quick bite as they’ll be at juku till 11 P.M. are the healthiest in the world? Gimme’ a break.

    • Jonathan Fields

      Actually, Japan has a lower incidence of that atopy skin thing, but they’re afraid of the steroids used to treat it. Back when I was a lowly English teacher I had a student who was a dentist. She suffered from atopy and desperately wanted to treat it, but her layman mother somehow talked her out of it. Wild and wacky stuff.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Really? When I worked in an international pre-school a good percentage of the kids there had it. Far more than I ever encountered back in my home country.

      • Jonathan Fields

        According to a paper I read a long time ago. My google-fu is failing me today, but I bet you can find incidence rates pretty easily. If I recall correctly it was about 1 in 10 in Japan, and about 1 in 8 in the US/UK. The thing is, it’s easily treated with steroid creams, so you never see it in the US/UK. Here, they leave it, so it seems to be more prevalent.

      • Paul Johnny Lynn

        Maybe that explains it then.

  • Marushka France

    before Fukushima fallout, an argument could be made… not since…
    initial data coming out of japan before secrecy bill indicated increased pediatric deaths by cardiovascular disease (heart attacks) and cancers.

  • McCauley

    I spend time in Japan every year. Always I walk a lot there, as one needs to to take subways to get around, and that means getting to the station and walking up and down stairs. And the food is terrific, even that served in bento boxes. And lots of fish!