Western Food and the Supersizing of Japan

Fat, fat, fat. Over three times more adults on this planet have become obese since 1975, meaning they’ve got a body-mass index (BMI) of 30 or over. The figure jumped—or maybe rolled—from about 4 percent then to 13 percent by 2016.

Obesity is considered one of the three greatest threats to human life alongside malnutrition and climate change. In January 2019, the Lancet Commission on Obesity reported that some four million deaths a year could be linked to extreme flabbiness.

Japan is slimmer than the rest of the world

In the U.S., over one in three people—36.2 percent—were obese in 2018. Thirty percent of New Zealanders were, too. And Japan? According to the OECD, just 3.2 percent. And that’s despite a diet westernized to a major degree for decades.

Food has become delicious, tempting and troublesome – even in Japan

Starting in the early fifties, meat, bread, and dairy products had made serious inroads, and school lunches nationwide included milk and rolls. The meaty, fatty, hearty Western diet featuring more protein, sugar and highly processed foods has spawned more cases of diabetes, atherosclerosis and other so-called lifestyle diseases. A 2016 Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare survey found that over 10 million Japanese had diabetes—500,000 more than the 2012 figure—and another 10 million were at risk.

The metabolic syndrome

A cluster of related conditions known as metabolic syndrome—shortened to metabo here—is getting serious enough that Japan passed a nanny state regulation in 2008 called the Metabo Law. The government said it would fine businesses with employees between 40 and 74 having exaggerated waistlines (over 90 cm for women and 85 cm for men), with the money to go to elder care.

If companies have actually been fined for this, nobody’s really saying.

There’s also nothing compelling employees to participate in health checks, so the law seems more a spur to do the right thing. Yahoo Japan did follow up, putting a 100-yen surtax on deep-fried foods served at its cafeteria to get employees to cut out the fat.

Stretching up and filling out  – Obesity looks different in Japan

What other effects has a heaping helping of meat and dairy, fast food, supersized portions and fat, butter and more had on the Japanese? Over the last seven decades, they’ve gained ten centimeters in height, many of them in the legs. Ride the trains here and you will notice that most Japanese still look taller sitting down than standing up, though, because their torsos tend to be longer, and legs shorter.

By contrast, the traditional Okinawan diet has helped people stay leaner and live the longest lives in the world, but also kept them shorter—the average Okinawan is 158 centimeters (5’2”) tall. Decades of a fast-food lifestyle have left the island’s younger citizens fatter, though, and more vulnerable to diabetes, heart failure and strokes.

Why the Japanese diet makes sense

Research has shown that human test groups eating what people did in 1975 cut their BMI and weight sharply, and had the lowest risk for diabetes and a fatty liver. Bad cholesterol fell as well. The Japanese diet circa 1975 was higher in legumes, fruit, seaweed, seafood, soy products and seasonings, and less meat, dairy, juice and soft drinks. The traditional “soup and three” meal formula—one main dish (frequently fish or another protein) and two side dishes (often vegetables), along with rice and soup—also guarantees dietary variety.

The 1975 diet isn’t perfect, however. The high salt content of soy sauce and other cooking staples is considered a prime culprit in cerebrovascular accidents, which are a major factor in senility and secondary dementia similar to Alzheimer’s. This phenomenon is more pronounced in the countryside, where traditional eating habits still dominate.

What’s functional food supposed to do?

Ever heard of functional foods and beverages? They’re supposed to do things like lower weight, cholesterol and blood pressure, aid in mobility and the ability to swallow and digest food. There are two categories of these products: foods with nutrient function claims (FNFC) and foods for special health uses (FOSHU). According to Statista.com, the shipment value of foods with function claims in Japan rose from 44.6 billion yen in fiscal 2015 to 190 billion in 2018. That’s a healthy market number indeed.

Meanwhile, Suntory, a major functional drink producer, estimates that Japan’s FOSHU market alone is worth US$6 billion, US$1 billion in beverages alone. According to the company, teas like black oolong and its Iyemon Tokucha inhibit lipase activity, reduce triglyceride levels and break down stored body fat. Other firms are using vinegar-infused beverages to melt away visceral fat—with diabetes a primary target—help the elderly stay mobile with drinks containing royal jelly and glucosamine, and adding ingredients such as GABA and mono-glucosyl hesperin to promote blood flow, relaxation and sleep.

What to investigate if you want to enter the Japanese food market

Spending on foodstuffs in 2018 was the biggest household expenditure in Japan at 23.1 percent, and continues to increase while budgets for other categories fall. Eating out also accounts for 10.4 percent. For anyone marketing food and beverage products, the FNFC and FOSHU markets promise to stay golden, so food scientists should be looking for ways to add that functionality. Packaging portions for single buyers is another key.




Nutra Ingredients-Asia


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Asahi Shimbun



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