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According to a 2015 OECD study, 20% of all adults worldwide are already overweight – and the trend has been rising for 30 years. Japan is the least affected, with 10 times fewer overweight people than USA. In this issue you will find out how exactly this is linked to Japanese nutritional habits and which factor culture and tradition play.

This AISTS Sport Medicine podcast is created by AISTS Class of 2019 Yukifumi TANAKA, Nikolay SILAEV under supervision of Professor Boris Gojavonic, MD.

Nikolay: Yokoso! This is AISTS MAS 2019 podcast and we will talk today about the Japanese secrets to avoid obesity crisis.


The prevalence of overweight and obesity people has increased substantially in all societies across the globe during last 3 decades, and all indications are that this trend is likely to persist in the coming years. This is a major public health concern because obesity has far reaching negative effects on health. The risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, certain types of cancers, and even mortality are directly proportional to the degree of obesity.

In 2015, across the OECD, 20 percent of the adult population, or every fifth adult, was obese. Adult obesity rates are highest in the United States, Mexico, New Zealand and Hungary, where they exceed 30%, and they are lowest in Japan and Korea.

In today’s podcast we will take a closer look at the remarkable phenomenon of Japanese low obesity rate which is 10 times lower than those of the United States. Together with Yuki Tanaka, AISTS Master in Sport Management participant from Japan, we will discover some secrets that help Japanese maintain the lowest obesity rate among the developed countries.

Yuki San, Kon ni chi wa!

Yuki: Kon ni chi wa

Nikolay: Yuki San, first secret for your weight control is probably “Washoku” which is inscribed in the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2013. Would you tell us more about this tradition?

Yuki: Yes, Nikolay. Washoku is a Japanese staple food, rice, which is complemented by a variety of side dishes, soup, and pickles. Thanks to soft water in Japan, they can reduce the bitterness but also efficiently brings out the Umami, which stands for a category of the 5th taste in food, established by the Japanese, besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter. Japanese people often make use of this umami to boil vegetables or seaweed with its pure water, which facilitates the inclusion and consumption of larger quantities of vegetables and fiber. Accordingly, Japanese food is less salty than Western food. Furthermore, frequent intake of soup by Japanese men has been correlated with a lower BMI, body mass index, waist circumference, and waist-to-hip ratio, all physical factors related to obesity. Moreover, the main cooking methods in Washoku are steaming, boiling, and stewing. This means not only enhancing the water content of Japanese dishes but also increasing low-fat and low calorie. Most Japanese people tend to eat on average 200 calories fewer than the average Westerner every single day and total energy consumption in Japan is not high compared with the USA and the west as well.

Nikolay: Humm, interesting. And, I think that Japanese people don’t eat too much. For example, like sushi, they eat various kind of sushi by small portion, don’t they?

Yuki: Yeah, you have a good point. The portion sizes are smaller. From ordinary meals at home to fine dining at restaurants, the portion sizes of standard Japanese meals are far below their Western counterparts. This explains why the Japanese are so slim despite having a diet high in refined carbohydrates like white rice. The relatively small portion size of the main and side dishes is another trait that helps to avoid overeating, since studies have shown that big portions encourage the consumption of larger meals.

Nikolay: Let’s turn to the eating habits. What do you mean by “Hara Hachi Bu”?

Yuki: Hara means stomach and hachibu means 80%. In Japan, the term “Hara hachi bu” has been used for more than 300 years. This concept means to stop eating when you are 80 percent full to avoid feeling uncomfortable. Accordingly, we are attentive to eat slowly in order to recognize stomach’s satisfaction. One study showed that eating quickly was significantly associated with overweight and obesity even after adjustment for total energy intake. In this way, Hara hachi bu contributes to the prevention of overeating and eating quickly.

Nikolay: I have heard that in Japan nobody eats dessert.

Yuki: Generally speaking, Japanese don’t always eat dessert, but to be honest, I do.Typically, Japanese waiter would not suggest the dessert after the meal unlike the western restaurant. In my experience, if I order dessert after meal, I will feel full when the dessert will be served. Otherwise, if I eat dessert, I will compensate what I eat with more physical exercise.

Nikolay: Well… there has been a great deal of confusion about the role of physical activity and exercise in obesity and weight management. The idea that obesity is caused by consistent decline in daily energy expenditure is not supported either by objective measures of energy expenditure or physiological theory of weight gain alone. However, since voluntary exercise is the most important component of total daily energy expenditure, it can affect energy balance. Therefore, physical activity hold potential as part of the solution for the ongoing obesity epidemic: regular exercise protects against unhealthy weight gain whereas sedentary lifestyles, particularly sedentary occupations and inactive recreation such as watching TV, promote it.

Yuki: So here is the final advise for you.

Don’t watch Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games on TV!

Visit Japan, watch the exciting Games live, taste Japanese culture and enjoy healthy Japanese food!

You can find more AISTS Sport Medicine podcast on our Soundcloud channel or on the Apple Podcast app. To learn more about the AISTS Master of Advanced Studies in Sport Administration and Technology, visit https://aists.org/master-in-sport-management/

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