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.”