Here’s Why Japanese Children Are the Healthiest in the World

Here’s Why Japanese Children Are the Healthiest in the World
JAPANESE GIRL EATING

When it comes to living a long and healthy life, let’s learn from the best, shall we?

We all want our children to be healthy and happy, but food—the very thing that should nourish the next generation—has become a battleground for many families, and the source of much confusion and controversy in the media. According to the results of a major worldwide health study published in The Lancet, if you are a child born in Japan today, you are projected to enjoy both the longest life and the healthiest life, and lifestyle and eating patterns are a big reason. Because even as childhood obesity and incidences of diabetes skyrocket around the world, Japanese childhood obesity levels have historically been much lower, and have in fact been declining overall in recent years. What are their secrets? As parents, my husband William and I needed to know. Based on our research and interviews with world’s experts, doctors and nutritionists, we distilled the lessons into seven practical steps that all parents can take to nurture their child’s health.

Make family meals more satisfying

Japanese-style eating is very efficient in that it’s both filling and it delivers a high-quality nutrient package. When you fill up on the good stuff your body needs, you’ll naturally have fewer cravings (and less room) for junk. But you don’t have to eat seaweed, sushi, and tofu to nourish a healthy child—just tweak your family food habits in a more healthy direction. Serve more plant-based foods like fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, and healthy fats, like heart-healthy omega 3-rich fish, and less processed food with added sugars and salt. This food pattern is relatively low in calories, high in nutrients, and more efficiently filling by being lower in calorie density or “calories per bite.” This will help minimize the risks of obesity and the hosts of illnesses it triggers, and maximize the probability of a long, healthy life. One secret: Japan’s default meal foundation is rice, much more than bread or pasta. The advantage of Japanese-style short-grain rice, preferably brown, or the incredibly good tasting haiga partially milled rice, is that it is water-rich when cooked, fluffy, and super-filling, and much lower in calorie density than bread. All that belly-filling rice might also displace less healthy foods and reduce the overall number of calories eaten.

Celebrate eating—along with flexible restraint

JAPANESE FAMILY EATING TOGETHER

Encourage your child to enjoy occasional treats and snacks—but in the proper amounts and frequencies, which are much smaller and less frequent in Japan than those that are typical in the West. The nutritionist Tomomi Takahashi of the Kaji Sakura Nursery School in Hokkaido, has great advice for all parents. “You don’t need to try so hard,” she says. “Have a relaxed attitude, so your child can relax and be comfortable eating. Show your child that you enjoy eating, and the food tastes wonderful.” She stresses the importance of dining together. “Even when you’re busy, set a specific meal time so you can sit down and eat with your child at least once a day,” she says, adding: “Cook your meals with love, and it will resonate in the child’s heart. Feel the joy of eating together with your child.” Research suggests that parents should “lighten up” about their children’s eating habits, cut out food stress and pressure, and just enjoy eating together as a family.

Encourage your child to explore new foods

Children’s food likes and dislikes change over time, and parents can gently steer them towards healthier patterns simply by exposing them to a wide variety of choices and by setting an example. The earlier and wider a child’s experience with sampling new healthy foods, the healthier their diet will become through childhood. Repeated opportunities for a child to sample new foods leads to their trying more, eating more, and liking more. This insight can inspire you to continue to tempt your children with new tastes over time, because their taste can mature, expand, and change constantly as they grow up—right into adulthood. Infants may need only one exposure to a new food to sharply increase their eating and liking it; and children over age 2 might need significantly more—up to 20 exposures. So don’t give up too early. Keep offering new foods, even small “tasting” samples—without pressure. As my grandmother Tsune often said, echoing a bit of Japanese folk wisdom, “a new food prolongs one’s life.

Nurture a wrap-around family lifestyle

Create a wrap-around home environment that supports healthy food and lifestyle choices. Eat family meals together regularly. Practice healthy, delicious cooking, and joyful eating as an example for your children. The idea of bringing children into the kitchen as a pathway to health was supported by a study of a group of 6- to 10-year-old children published in the August 2014 journal Appetite. The study says that involving children in the preparation of healthy and balanced meals could be a valuable intervention strategy to improve their diets. The idea of eating family meals together is a practice that many families around the world, including in Japan, are finding harder and harder to pull off, as parents work later and after-school schedules get increasingly booked up. But it is a goal worth striving for, because the potential health benefits for children appear to be huge. A research paper published in the November 2014 issue of Pediatrics reported that warmth, group enjoyment, and parental positive reinforcement at family meals were significantly associated with reduced risk of childhood overweight and obesity.

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