Dieters take lesson from diabetics


In the health-food section of many major department stores, large quantities of boil-bag diabetic meals have become a familiar sight. Recently the meals have been selling well, but sales are being boosted not by diabetes sufferers, but by healthy women in their 20s and 30s who want to lose weight.

Ready-to-eat meals for diabetics are becoming popular with dieters.

Diabetics have to calculate the food energy of whatever they eat in order to limit their caloric intake to 1,600 calories per day. To make this process easier, several food makers produce ready-made diabetic meals.

Nichirei Corp., for instance, has produced diabetic meal sets packed in boil bags since 1989. Each set contains two or three dishes (no rice or bread included) with a total energy value of 320 calories.

The company now offers 16 kinds of diabetic meal sets. Their hamburger steak set, for instance, consists of a hamburger steak with mushroom sauce and a cup of clam chowder; their sukiyaki-flavored beef set contains three dishes — beef cooked with string konnyaku and onion, hijiki-no-nimono (cooked seaweed, pork and vegetables) and a bowl of tonjiru (miso soup with pork and vegetables).

The meals were originally developed for diabetes sufferers, but Nichirei estimates that currently nearly 40 percent of their customers are nondiabetics.

“Sales suddenly jumped early this year, after the mass media started reporting on diabetic meals as an ideal diet for weight control,” says Hiroaki Seo of Nichirei’s Health Promotion Food Division. “At a department store which was repeatedly introduced in TV programs and print articles, sales of our diabetic meals have tripled. Most of our new customers buy them in order to lose weight.”

The size of each meal differs depending on the set, with an average quantity of around 340-380 grams. To cut down on calories and increase volume, Nichirei carefully chooses meat parts with little fat, and removes as much fat as possible during the cooking process, by boiling the meat well, for instance.

Anyone can purchase their diabetic meal sets at department stores and pharmacies for 900-1,000 yen, without a doctor’s prescription. “I think eating diabetic food is a much healthier way of controlling weight than taking diet pills or other chemical products,” Seo says.

Many medical doctors agree that diabetic meals are safe and healthy for nondiabetics as well. “Diabetic meals are low in calories but nutritionally well balanced. They’re basically similar to typical Japanese home-cooked meals of the 1950s and ’60s,” says Makoto Ohno, a doctor at the Jikei University School of Medicine. “I have recommended eating diabetic meals to overweight patients for nearly 20 years.”

Many people go on reckless diets that severely restrict caloric intake or are nutritionally ill balanced, which can be harmful to the body, but diabetic meals contain many nutrients and are safe for anyone, Ohno says.

“Until several years ago you had to learn how to calculate calories from books, which was tough. Today, however, you can get an idea of what a diabetic diet should consist of more easily,” Ohno says. “Try boil-bag diabetic meals or home delivery of raw and half-cooked ingredients with instructions for a month, and your body will become accustomed to the kind of things you should eat and how much.”

Some sports clubs have programs combining exercise and dietary guidance with the help of ready-made diabetic meals. Central Sports Co. offers a “Health Diet Course” at 20 of its fitness clubs, and approximately 400 members are currently taking part in the program. The participants are mostly women who are basically healthy but want to lose weight.

“Restricting caloric intake and doing no exercise slows down metabolism and makes weight gain easier. Exercise is necessary if you are trying to control your weight more effectively,” says Toshihiko Ohigashi, the Central Sports health and fitness instructor who developed the diet program.

There are two courses — once a week or twice a week — and each class consists of a 30-minute lecture on diet and nutrition and a 60-minute physical-exercise program including aerobic exercise and weight training. On average, participants lose about 2 kg in the first month. “Building muscle by weight training raises your metabolic rate and prevents rebound,” Ohigashi adds.

Participants are advised to limit their caloric intake to 1,500 calories a day, and those who feel it is difficult to prepare meals, or want to control caloric intake more strictly, can order diabetic meals in boil bags. Currently, around 10 percent of participants eat the ready-made meals.

“Many people say the diabetic meals taste better than they expected, but if they eat them for a long time they may get tired of the taste. [In order to lose weight effectively], it’s probably more important for participants to have friends in the same program who can provide mutual encouragement,” says Ohigashi.