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Why the Japanese have a long life expectancy

Updated on June 17, 2013

Life expectancy and diet

The Japanese are known to have one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. Much of that may come from genetics but a lot has to do with diet and health eating habits. Unlike many countries in the west were many people think they are sacrificing taste for healthy food, the Japanese very much enjoy their traditional food which is usually low on calories and rich in vitamins. Japanese who live in foreign countries may get tempted with other types of diet higher in calories but generally follow and Japanese staple diet which helps them maintain a slim waistline.

There is also a lot of pressure related to physical size in Japan, especially amongst women and girls. What we may call curvy or voluptuous in the west may be viewed as simply fat or obese in Japan. This can be a serious bullying issue where out of a class of 30-40 students everyone will typically be slim and the one overweight student will stand out and feel pressured to lose weight to avoid becoming the subject of bullying.

Clothes sizes in Japan tend to be on the smaller size, a L size being like an M in the UK. A lot of fashionable clothes are mainly in the M size and some in the L size, very few in the XL size making it very difficult for overweight people to wear fashionable clothes. These will mean that for many overweight people, not only do they stand out due to their size, they are wearing clothes from a limited choice.

In the western world many women may think they being pregnant is an excuse to pile on the pounds. Japanese doctors will seriously scold their patients for this, they make sure that you eat what's necessary for you and the baby only, and anything extra is putting yourself and the baby at risk. This is why you see so many Japanese woman get pregnant with a bot belly sticking out of a very tiny frame. Once they give birth they snap back into their original shape within days, whereas many women in western countries will still be fighting to get back into shape after overeating during pregnancy.

Japanese Breakfast

One of the most important meals of the day and this is where many people start the day with calorie overdose. I believe Toast, Scrambled eggs, baked beans, sausages etc, is a wonderful way to start the day but is it a wonderful way to treat your body? It's mainly fried food which will certainly give you some energy, but also a bigger waistline. We don't need to eat what the Japanese do for a healthy start to the day but it's very good to know so we can make comparisons and look at the type of nutrients that are being taken in.

As you can see from the picture, there is rice which is the Japanese staple diet however eaten in quite small helpings since rice has a lot of carbohydrate similar to pasta which can put on body bulk if not burned off. Next to the rice is pickles, very common in all Japanese meals. Next to that is Miso soup which is made from a type of bean paste and hot water. It typically contains Tofu and seaweed. Above that is a raw egg, this is eaten raw, cracked and beaten into a bowl using chop sticks. Not very favourable for westerners but popular amongst most Japanese, food will be dipped into the egg. Next to that is salad, more pickles and cooked fish, usually salmon.

As you can see the volume is not so much, but the thing to notice here is the variety. Rather than having everything all one one plate, Aisan food tends to be sepearated out. Eating this way actually helps your stomach to feel satisfied at an earlier stage, thus eating less.


Going to the convenience stores near all the main office at work I often feel guilty picking up the heavy carbs foods. A lot of people are stick close to the staple diet and are going for a simple salad and an onigiri. Onigiri (literal meaning = grip) is a ball of sticky rice shaped into typically a triange shape by the hand using a gripping technique hence the word onigiri. The outside as per the picture is usually wrapped in Nori (dried seaweed in the form of paper). This will usually have a filling of some sort such as tuna, ikura, prawns, veggie etc. These are very cheap and will satisfy the hunger of most Japanese, due to the carbs content.

I don't see many women eating the more higher calorie foods, they tend to enter the shop and go straight for the salad, sandwiches and onigiri section. I must say, they do love their sugary cakes, even the middle aged men but I guess its well balanced out with food that covers all nutritional value.

A large percentage of people in Japan bring a lunch box to work. I was surprised to see how different the contents were compared to some lunchboxes in the west. A colleague of mine laughed when she heard that cake and chocolate were often included. A Japanese Bento (lunchbox) will only contain Rice, a small quantity of meat/fish, pickles, egg and salad. This varies depending on the person but definitely not snacks.


Over the decades and centries the Japanese have incorporated many international foods into their diet so its very difficult to give examples of typical food. This year already I have eaten, Pizza, Curry, McDonalds, Kentucky, Sushi, Thai, Chinese. The Japanese do enjoy international cusine but at the same time are very pround of their own food. Many times I hear Japanese say "Mmmmm, I'm so glad I was born Japanese". Although western food is eaten, the Japanese eating habits will apply having numerous plates of assorted food. There may typically be one bowl of a western dish to share but numerous bowls and plates of rice, fish, pickels, salad, soup, bread, beans, tofu etc.. and everything will be eaten in equal portions. I do believe that this is the key for healthy eating. Eating lots with a good even balance will probably lose more weight then eating less with a poor diet.

Life expectancy by country 2011

Life expectancy men
Life expectancy women
Ice Land 

The younger generation Japanese

The younger generation definitely have gotten bigger in both size and height. A lot is due to different eating habits, especially western food. When you visit a fast food chain in Japan, you'll be very surprised at the length of the queues and the amount of waiting with most customers being young families.

Looking around my office at work though, it seems that people diet seems rather related to their body weight/shape/size, larger people tend to have a higher carbs intake and eat fewer times a day.

People who bring their own food "Bentos" usually consists of a healthy mix of vegetable, meat and rice. They tend to have a slimmer build. The people who mainly eat out do tend to be more of the overweight side.


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    • Hezekiah profile image

      Hezekiah 7 years ago from Japan

      @Crewman6 - Thank you. I could actualy lose a bit of weight myself however if I were still living in the UK, i'd probably be obese by now. Having a Japanese wife cook for you helps.

    • Crewman6 profile image

      Crewman6 7 years ago

      Fascinating look at another way of eating. Longevity and low weight seem like a powerful proof of success! I really enjoyed your writing.