If white rice and fried foods are the enemy, why are the Japanese so slim? It’s important to ask this type of question and find an honest answer. Western cultures don’t have the best relationship with food, which is why we should be open to learning from others. So, yes, you can eat carbs and absolutely lose weight with a Japanese diet — and we’re going to talk about why it works.
What’s in This Post:
- Traditional Japanese Diet Foods
- Healthier Portions
- Focus on Hydration
- The Japanese Plate
- Follow My Journey
Before we go any further, I just want to say that this isn’t about shaming or tearing down western diets. It’s about changing our relationship with food, addressing the true causes of our weight struggles, and finding a new way to be healthier in a way that’s sustainable and realistic.
Heads up – This post contains affiliate links for your convenience, and we may earn a very small commission if you make a purchase through an affiliate link.
Traditional Japanese Diet Foods
You won’t find a lot of bread or dairy products in the Japanese diet. It’s not that they never eat pastries or cheese, but these types of foods aren’t eaten in the frequency or quantities you see in North America. Also, chicken and beef take a backseat to fish and seafood, while fruit is often preferred as a dessert (or even a special gift!).
There is a huge focus on fresh, seasonal, and even local foods including vegetables, fish, and fermented foods. We make sure we have at least one fermented item with each meal and it has improved my digestion so much! Plus, fermented seasonings (soy sauce, sake, miso, vinegar, mirin, etc…) add so much flavor to a dish without having to rely as much on salt or sugar.
With each meal, it’s typical to have each of the following foods in reasonable portions:
- Steamed rice or noodles (udon, soba, somen, ramen)
- Soup (miso is very common)
- Main dish: proteins such as fish, tofu, beans, meats, or vegetables
- Side dishes: vegetables, pickles
- Green tea
You’ll be relying on a variety of cooking methods to prepare your food including simmering, steaming, boiling, grilling, and even leaving some foods raw. Try to mix it up and eat foods that appeal to your five senses (salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami) prepared using different cooking styles.
If you’re looking for inspiration, we’ve put together a collection of our favorite Japanese recipes. I’m allergic to fish and seafood, so you won’t find many of those recipes here. We highly recommend the fantastic Just One Cookbook website. I’d also suggest checking out some cookbooks like the following:
Japanese Soul Cooking: Ramen, Tonkatsu, Tempura, and More from the Streets and Kitchens of Tokyo and Beyond [A Cookbook]
One of the most important distinctions between Japanese diets and those found in western societies is portion size. While it’s really common in the United States to put a huge slab of meat next to a mound of mashed potatoes and slather everything with a bucket of gravy, that’s quite uncommon in Japan.
Instead, they prefer to eat a wide variety of foods at each meal in small portions. Not only does it keep calories down, but it allows you to have a little bit of everything. It looks so appetizing, keeps meals from getting boring, and makes it possible to indulge in high fat/high-calorie foods like fried chicken since it’s just a small part of your meal.
To lose weight with a Japanese diet, here are some goals:
- Eat until you’re 80% full
- Put effort into presentation to make meals beautiful and appealing
- Chew food fully
- Don’t overdo the condiments (like soy sauce)
- Have a solid breakfast
- Enjoy everything in moderation
It’s really become a fun challenge to create meals every day. At lunchtime, it’s great to use bento boxes to control portions and stay on track.
Focus on Hydration
Drinking enough water every day has been a struggle for me ever since my colon was removed over 20 years ago. As a result, I have battled dehydration and malabsorption for two decades. Shifting to a Japanese diet has made staying hydrated effortless, and I can’t believe how it’s changed my life.
Rather than counting glasses of water, the focus is on choosing foods that will hydrate your body. An article I read summed this up really well: “In the West, if you have a sandwich with a coffee for lunch, the bread itself is dry (because water is baked out), cold cuts have zero water content and the coffee is dehydrating. But in a Japanese meal, the rice has been cooked in water, the vegetables themselves have high water content and traditional meals include hydrating soups.” Amazing, right? So, whenever I plan my meals, I keep this in mind.
We also don’t drink water with meals. We do have a cup of warm tea to help with digestion after we’ve eaten and then enjoy green tea two to three times throughout the day.
The Japanese Plate
What does a typical Japanese meal look like? Well, it usually includes the same components so even if it seems a little overwhelming at first, you’ll have plenty of practice. Before long, it will come as second nature!
The foundation of Japanese meals is called Ichiju Sansai which means “one soup, three dishes.” As mentioned earlier, it’s customary to have soup with every meal as well as rice or noodles. Then, you have your three dishes — a main dish and two sides (as well as pickles/fermented foods). Here’s what that place setting looks like:
This illustration is from the Just One Cookbook website which explains: “A typical Japanese meal is composed of four elements: rice, soup, side dishes, and pickled vegetables.
- Gohan (ご飯) – a bowl of plain steamed rice
- Shiru (汁) – a bowl of soup, which may contain vegetables or tofu
- Okazu (おかず) – main dish and 2 side dishes composed of vegetables, tofu, fish or meat
- Kouno mono(香の物) – a small plate of pickled seasonal vegetables
This meal format can be served for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. My tip? Eat the veggies first. First of all, if you don’t like the veggies it’s great to get them out of the way before you tuck into something you enjoy more. Second, you will be filling up on healthy, low-calorie options which could help you eat less at each meal. Try it and see if it works for you!
Get Ready to Lose Weight Japanese Diet
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s understandable. This isn’t about learning a fad diet that you can just jump into. Adopting a Japanese diet is about a lifestyle change, so making that shift will take some time and effort. I’ve been influenced by these foods most of my life and I’m still learning! Here are some of my tips for success:
Weekly Prep Day
Pick a prep day for making side dishes ahead of time. You can start with simpler things like bags of veggies you can steam in the microwave (broccoli) or bake in the oven (Japanese sweet potato). This is something I still do! When you’re ready, move up to more complicated sides like Japanese Potato Salad and meats.
A Mealtime Ritual
This isn’t practical or even desirable for everyone, but my meal prep has become a ritual. I’ve got a routine — set out my tray, gather all my tableware and utensils, start reheating sides, etc — that makes putting together my lunches and dinners feel like an art. It may not look or taste perfect to others, but it’s a process that’s become immensely enjoyable for me. It also helps me appreciate and be more mindful about what I’m eating.
Make an Informed Choice
As I’ve mentioned, this isn’t about adopting a fad diet — this is a lifestyle. It’s about more than figuring out how to lose weight with a Japanese diet. Are you ready to change your relationship with food? Are you open to trying new recipes? Does this type of change fit into your life right now?
Set yourself up for success by doing the research and making an informed decision. In the meantime, here are some of the pros and cons associated with following a Japanese diet:
- No calorie counting (but you can if you want to!)
- Mostly freshly made whole, healthy foods
- Recipes are often easy to make!
- Starting with a strong, balanced breakfast can help you eat well all day
- Easy to apply the principles of this diet (portions, for example) to different cuisines
- Great way to learn more about Japanese culture and history through food
While we follow the overall principles, our diet consists of 50% Japanese, 40% Korean and about 10% Western or other Asian foods. Yes, you can use leftover beef pot roast as a side with this diet and yes you can take a break for burgers and fries occasionally. As long as you have a strong foundation, this is a flexible and enjoyable diet!
- You’ll need to shift your thinking considerable if you’re used to a Western diet
- Meal prep can take more effort at first
- Depending on where you live, you might have a hard time finding ingredients
- You will need to learn true portion sizes
- Rice and noodles might be too many carbs for some
- You may need to make modifications if you’re watching sodium intake
The good news is that everything takes work at first, but after a while, you won’t even think about it! You may not have the best luck with some ingredients in your local stores, but check out the list of our favorite online Asian grocery stores. We almost never struggle to find what we need!
Also, many popular products come in low-sodium varieties and konjac/shirataki noodles are an almost zero carb/zero calorie option for those who need it.
Preparing Your Pantry
You may already have many of the items you’ll need for a Japanese diet in your pantry. If not, you can slowly build up your stockpile. Also, one thing we love is that the table set is not all matchy-matchy. Much like your food, the bowls, and plates on your table offer variety. Here are some of the things we use on a daily basis:
- Rice cooker (we love our Zojirushi but there are many kinds!)
- Rice bowls (we have these and these)
- Soup bowls
- Small soup bowls
- Ramen bowls
- Bowl plate (we have these which are great for curry!)
- Medium plates
- Small plates
- Tiny plates
- Side dish bowls
- Rectangle plate (great for sushi or katsu)
- Bento boxes (for us and for the kids)
- Tea cups
- Chopsticks (for us and for kids)
- Chopstick rests (keeps your chopsticks clean!)
- Wooden spoons and wooden forks
- Soup spoons
- Hot water dispenser (we use this all day every day)
For a guide to Japanese tableware, again I’ll direct you to Just One Cookbook. That site has been a lifesaver for us and we have bookmarked and printed so many incredible recipes over the years.
Over the next few months, I’ll come back and share my own journey. In 2020, I lost 20lbs following a Japanese diet. There were days (weeks?!) when I overindulged, but again having a strong foundation helps you find your way back. Ultimately, I’ve decided that it’s more about being healthier than any numbers or my pants size. Following a Japanese diet makes me feel good, and at the end of the day, that matters more than anything.