Last updated: Apr 18, 2008
In her new book Japanese Women Dont Get Old or Fat, Japanese-born marketing consultant Naomi Moriyama shares the secret behind her youthful, energetic lifestyle and svelte shape. Its not a rigid diet or fitness plan. The secret is Japanese home-style cooking. Moriyama is convinced that Japanese longevity and the low rates of obesity in her native country have a lot to do with the kinds of meals she ate growing up in her mothers Tokyo kitchen. Moriyama, who now lives in New York, packed 25 pounds onto her tiny 5-foot frame during her college days—courtesy of takeout meals and American cuisine, she says. So she and her American-born husband recently switched to eating the traditional Japanese way. Leaner and more energetic, Moriyama wants to share her strategies.


The conversational writing and first-person narration of this book are remarkably similar to the recent diet tome French Women Dont Get Fat. Interspersed with 36 family recipes is a lightweight discussion of scientific findings regarding the health benefits of Asian diets along with some quaint Japanese folk sayings. One example: “If you have a pleasant experience eating something you have never tasted before, your life will be lengthened by 75 days.” Overall, its a fun read; yet Moriyamas suggestion that Japanese women dont have problems or concerns with weight is not supported by fact. A few recent studies seem to offer evidence to the contrary. Researchers find college-age Japanese women are some of the most weight-conscious in the world, and older Japanese women are increasingly battling weight problems.





Basic principles:


There are seven “secrets” of the Tokyo kitchen. First, preferred foods include fish, soy, rice, vegetables, and fruit. Second, portions are small. Third, breakfast is powered by miso soup. Fourth, cooking is light and gentle. Fifth, rice replaces bread. Sixth, desserts are teeny-tiny. And seventh, Japanese women dont deprive themselves or go on diets but eat small amounts of whatever they like.

How the diet works:


Chopsticks are optional. So is sushi and Japanese restaurant-style food. This is about cooking simple meals based on fish, vegetables, rice, and produce. In Japanese style, each food is served in its own dish, and when it comes to portions, less is more. The idea is not to stuff yourself but to hari hachi bunme, or eat until you are 80 percent full. Exercise is accrued through a walking-intensive lifestyle; the idea is to walk everywhere.

What you can eat:


Seven foods or food groups. The author describes the seven pillars of Japanese home cooking: fish, vegetables, rice, soy, noodles, tea (particularly green tea), and fruit. Typical ingredients in a Japanese pantry include familiar foods like canola oil, rice, onions, carrots, and bok choy. Less-mainstream items, like bonita flakes (dried mackerel) and hijiki (seaweed), might be difficult to find. While rice is a fixture at every meal, portions are kept small, and Moriyama admits its healthier to substitute brown rice for white and low-sodium soy sauce for the regular kind.

Does the diet take and keep weight off?


Hard to pinpoint. Moriyama herself starts “packing on pounds with frightening speed” when she eats American food and portions. She offers up her husbands 35-pound weight loss (no mention of how long it took) as proof the diet works.

Is the diet healthy?


Undoubtedly. Numerous scientific studies support the health benefits of eating Asian-style, particularly the landmark China Diet Study conducted by Cornell University and lead by respected nutrition researcher T. Colin Campbell, PhD.

What do the experts say?


Lilian Cheung, RD, DSc, director of Health Promotion and Communication at the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, says the strategies and foods promoted in the book are sound, but she sees a few limitations. First, the liberal use of soy sauce and vegetables preserved in salt makes most Japanese diets too high in sodium. Refined white rice is another problem. “Id recommend that people eat brown rice instead of white in light of the beneficial effects of whole grains on cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes,” Cheung says. She also thinks dieters need to broaden their approach to include other Asian cuisines besides Japanese. “If someone loves to eat Japanese-style food, certainly they would enjoy following the recommendations in this book, but its not the only way to eat healthfully and maintain a healthful weight,” Cheung says. Cornell University researcher T. Colin Campbell puts it this way: “In a nutshell, I can say that the way the Asians eat—mostly plant-based foods, fruits, grains, and so forth, and low in fat—thats the kind of diet that keeps body weight down. Its the best kind of diet for that purpose, and it does it safely.”

Who should consider the diet?


Anyone who likes Japanese cuisine. But dieters who thrive on structure might feel lost with the strategies Moriyama promotes, since theyre general guidelines rather than a specific calorie-controlled weight loss plan.

Bottom line:


Not everyone is going to groove on miso soup for breakfast or tofu stir-fries, but for dieters who like Japanese food, the advice here is sound and doable. Its just no guarantee youll lose weight.