What Makes Japanese Kids Such Healthy Eaters?

CC BY 2.0. Osamu Iwasaki

It's all about the careful and conscious way in which Japanese parents teach their children about food.

Back in 2012, The Lancet published a study saying that Japanese children will live longer and be healthier than children elsewhere in the world. This pronouncement delighted the nation and led to a flurry of discussion about what exactly makes Japanese children so much healthier than others.

Parent and author Naomi Moriyama is convinced that a big part of it is food-related. The relationships that children develop with food shape their health and wellbeing for the long term, and this happens with careful parenting. Together with her husband William Doyle, Moriyama published a book called “Secrets of the World’s Healthiest Children,” which explores the intersection of Japanese food and parenting culture.

It outlines the practices that set Japan apart from the rest of the world – all wise and valuable points that we’d do well to adopt here in North America. Here are some of Moriyama's observations:

1. Meals are nutritionally satisfying.

Japanese meals usually consist of rice, lots of vegetables, fruit, pickles, and a smaller amount of meat, dairy, and sugar. It is filling, nutrient-rich, and keeps one feeling full for longer. Moriyama told The Telegraph:

“A typical Japanese meal will be vegetable based; flavored with strips of fish, chicken or beef it might also contain water chestnuts, mangetouts, mung sprouts, pak choi, mustard greens, rice and herbs.”

2. Eating is celebrated.

There’s a sense of pleasure and enjoyment around a Japanese family’s dinner table. Children are encouraged to try and taste, but not necessarily finish everything on their plates. Parents show visible delight in the foods they eat themselves, which teaches kids to do the same. At home, you should encourage your child to try new foods, even if they show initial resistance. Babies are the most open-minded, whereas older children are much more resistant, but it’s important to stick to it.

3. Portions are small.

There is an old Japanese saying that says, “He who has his stomach full only 80 percent will not need a doctor.” Dinners are comprised of multiple dishes in small amounts. People eat in a rhythm, alternating between rice, miso soup, vegetables, fish and meat. To achieve this at home, put out smaller plates and allow family members to help themselves, instead of serving them.

4. Kids are physically active.

Many Japanese children walk or bike to school, instead of being driven by parents. (One estimate suggests that 98 percent of kids in Japan get to school without cars.) This burns off excess calories, generates a healthy appetite for mealtime, and gets kids used to engaging in regular daily exercise.

5. There is a ‘wrap-around’ family lifestyle.

Doyle uses this term to describe a home environment that supports healthy food and lifestyle choices. The home is stocked with good food. Kids are involved in meal preparation. Families eat together on a regular basis. This is crucial for children’s wellbeing, as quoted by Reader's Digest:

“A research paper published in the November 2016 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.”

This philosophy extends to schools as well, where impressive healthy lunch programs are widely implemented and viewed as “a part of education, not a break from it.”

As you can see from the list, adopting Japanese food rules at home doesn’t mean handing out chopsticks to the kids, but rather understanding that food should be celebrated and enjoyed by all.