• Healthy, hot meals were prepared on-site by cooks and then portioned out to classrooms. Students then help serve the meals and are involved in cleaning up. (KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP/Getty Images)
Young kids in Japan's schools learn how to serve meals, consume nutritious food and eat mindfully as part of their day-to-day education. Perhaps this is the Japanese secret to good health and a long life?
By
Sharon Verghis

30 Mar 2017 - 2:48 PM  UPDATED 6 Apr 2017 - 2:40 PM

When Australian dietitian Charlene Gross went on a research trip to Tokyo, Japan last year, she was impressed by what she saw in the nation’s primary schools. Healthy, hot meals were prepared on-site by cooks and then portioned out to classrooms where students, on a roster, doled out plates to fellow students.

“They have kitchens in school so they actually cook on-site, but rather than already portioning it out, they will send, say, a bowl of sauce and pasta to the classroom so that kids will be involved in portioning it out,” says Gross.

Gross, a member of the Dietitians Association of Australia, would love to see something like this in the Australian school curriculum.

“They have kitchens in school so they actually cook on-site, but rather than having cooks portion it out, they will send, say, a bowl of sauce and pasta to the classroom so that kids will be involved in portioning it out."

Through Japan’s national school food program, launched post-war with the School Lunch Act of 1954 and served to over 10 million children nationally, Japanese children are introduced early to the importance of good nutrition, portion control and the resulting signals about satiety, mindful eating, the communal experience of preparing and serving meals.

Gross adds that at a young age, they are also aware of the need to, generally, embrace food as a vital and enjoyable part of daily life rather than as an inconvenience hastily shoehorned in among other commitments.

“The more involved children are in learning about healthy food choices, the more likely is it they will be involved when they grow older,” she says.

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A recent study of Japan’s national dietary advice suggests that the varied menu decreases the risk of death.

Childhood involvement and food education are key parts of a national approach to nutrition in Japan, which takes food and the health of its citizens seriously. The government sees the school lunch program as a smart investment in its children’s health, with government data showing that Japan’s child obesity rate - among the world’s lowest - has declined for each of the past six years.

There are also wider cultural implications: as Japanese government school lunch experts Nobuko Tanaka and Miki Miyoshi have said, the program helps children acquire “a sense of gratitude” and “spirit to appreciate foods and social manners”.

“Generally, the meal will involve a carbohydrate, a lean protein, vegies, and on the side, a serve of milk or something. It’s a healthy, well-balanced diet,” Gross says.

“Discretionary food” or junk food, like chips and chocolate, in our language - is generally not allowed in their school program. It is not about stuffing your face and rushing out to play, she says – there is a pleasing ritualistic aspect of sitting down and making time for a meal together in the classroom.

“The teacher will also sit down and they will eat together before the kids go out to play. It shows this is mealtime, this is important for health and energy and concentration. So this is a very high priority.”

A key Japanese dietary guideline is to consume at least 30 different foods a day.

The school lunch program takes its cue from the guiding philosophy of Shokuiku, revolving around laws on food and nutrition education.

This program takes its cue from the much revered Japanese diet, which Gross says generally ticks all the boxes for good health, including lower rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. It is rich in plant foods, and based on moderate proportions of lean meat, and in fish, soy and seaweed, she says.

“If you look at global obesity rates, Japan is lower than us, with also lower rates of heart disease and diabetes. But if you change dietary patterns, if they move to Australia, for example, their weight and disease types can also change.”

A key Japanese dietary guideline is to consume at least 30 different foods a day. In contrast, “the average Australian consumes 15 different foods a week”. 

Gross says we have a long way to go to boost our food diversity.

So what, then, can we do to improve our diet to emulate the Japanese diet? Gross advises that we eat more vegies – only a small percentage of Australians meet the five serves a day guidelines – and plenty of soy and seafood, particularly oily fish like tuna and sardines.

The prizing of culinary beauty echoes Japan’s reverence for balance and portion in everything from architecture to fashion.

But healthy dietary guidelines aside, Gross says Australians have plenty to gain by following Japan’s general approach to food as a part of a wider spiritual, cultural, philosophical and aesthetic value system: the opposite of our disposable fast-food approach.

There is much to be praised, she explains, in their general approach to eating, which encourages slower, more mindful consumption and the savouring of texture, smell, and a pleasing visual balance and colour on the plate.

In Japan, basic practical cues like chewing your food and listening to your appetite are also key. The prizing of culinary beauty echoes Japan’s reverence for balance and portion in everything from architecture to fashion.

“When you’re enjoying your meals, you’re more likely to eat mindfully… and when you are more mindful of what you eat, you tend to eat smaller portions.” 

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Queensland University of Technology academic Dr Helen Vidgen, senior Research Fellow at the School of Exercise & Nutrition Sciences, cites the Japanese pavilion at the Milan expo in 2015, which responded to the overall theme of ‘feeding the planet, energy for life’. 

Their involvement, she says, was "all about harmony and how it a key feature of Japanese culture - that was really expressed through food".

"There is harmony in terms of the plate of food you choose to eat, but also how much you are eating, and also the production of food and what is does to the environment”.

Vidgen says unlike Western society, where we see the proliferation of food even in places that are not normally seen as typical eating spots, Japan has a more regulated food culture.

Like Gross, she is a fan of Japan’s school food program, the bedrock of the Japanese diet. Vidgen says we can learn not only from how it teaches good nutrition, but how it seeds in young minds a “critical understanding of what it means from a health dimension, but also in terms of farming and trade, and the environment”.

"There is harmony in terms of the plate of food you choose to eat, but also how much you are eating, and also the production of food and what is does to the environment”.

Japan is leading a global food trend incorporating nutrition into a wider, more holistic philosophy of sustainable living. Brazil is another country that is following Japan’s lead, releasing dietary guidelines that don’t just cover basic nutrition as we do in Australia: “It’s also about how you eat, about preparing your food and eating together.”

The French, not surprisingly, have had their culinary approach immortalised on UNESCO's World Heritage List. But says Vidgen, “there are a number of countries that are addressing this aspect of food and eating beyond actual food itself. Japan is a big leader in that”.


 

Want to learn more about the Japanese diet? Watch the light-hearted, funny documentary 'My Japanese Diet'  - which follows a fast-food junkie's culinary voyage of discovery to Japan - on SBS on Thursday 6 April at 8.35pm or on SBS On Demand after it airs.

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