In our hurried, fragmented life, many of us seem to be too busy to practice some of the most fundamental daily routines, like preparing and serving our child delicious-healthy meals. I’d be the first one to admit it. I often feel like I am playing a catch-up with my 9-year-old son’s schedule and not making simple great meals a priority. But wait. What can be more important than our child’s health? What can be more important than fueling the most efficient and effective energy into our child’s growing bodies and brains? What can be more important than a family sitting around a table and having a delicious screen-free meal over good conversations?
We all want our children to be happy, healthy and thrive.
I grew up in the food utopia of Japan in 1960’s and 70’s when the way people ate was practically perfect. People had more ‘traditional’ meals: fewer processed foods, more home-cooked meals, and fewer empty calories when compared with today. My mother shopped for fresh produce daily, and cooked meals everyday. She also made Western and ethnic influenced dishes, like spaghetti, hamburgers, omelettes, Indian curry and Chinese noodles, but they were all re-configured to suite our tastes and Japanese food habits. I was still surprised when I read the results of a major worldwide health study published in The Lancet, which said if you are a child born in Japan today, you are projected to enjoy both the longest life and the healthiest life. I realized that the whole Japanese culture, even though it has been highly modernized and Westernized, and has its own short-comings, still provides a national social structure that largely supports and guides children towards health behavior.
Childhood obesity levels in Japan have historically been much lower, and have in fact been declining overall in recent years, though obesity among children in a number of developed nations is growing at high levels — or evening out, as seems to be the case in the US. What are the health secrets of Japanese children? As parents raising a growing 9-year-old boy in New York City filled with oversized fast foods and tempting sweets, my husband William and I face the same challenges that you may face. How can we nurture positive healthy food habits in our child?
Based on our research and interviews with world’s experts, doctors and nutritionists, we distilled our findings into seven lessons that all parents can use to nurture their child’s health — starting today.
1. Tweak Food Patterns to Make Them More Satisfying and Healthier
You don’t have to cook authentic Japanese meals at home. Gradually adjust your family food patterns to a more healthy direction to help nurture a healthy child. The Japanese diet is a pattern of eating based largely on healthy foods like vegetables, fruit, beans, whole grains and healthy fats like heart-healthy Omega 3-rich fish. These foods are high in nutrients, and low in calorie-density, meaning they fill you up on fewer calories.
Japanese people also eat a huge amount of rice, six times more per person than Americans. According to researchers at the nutrition laboratory at Penn State University, rice is also low in calorie-density, meaning it’s very filling. In Japan-style eating, you can have a bowl of rice with every meal. Rice is a bedrock foundation of Asian diets, and in Japan it is typically cooked in water (no oil or butter) unlike bread or pasta which is served with butter, sweetened jams and/or creamy sauce. Rice, preferably brown, or the incredibly good-tasting haiga partially milled rice with many nutrients intact, is a low-fat, complex carbohydrate that fills you up, gives your child energy and leaves less room in his or her belly for fattening foods like packaged cookies and pastries. Japanese-style eating is very efficient in both filling power and in delivering a high-quality nutrient package.
A flip side of the Japanese food pattern is what they don’t eat.
According to nutrition data from the UN, the Japanese diet features much less meat, sugar, butter and animal fats than the average American diet. Japan-style foods are naturally lower in the heart-unhealthy so-called “bad fats”: saturated fats and trans fats. For example, even though the Japanese diet has become more Westernized in recent years, the average Japanese person still eats almost six times the amount of calories from fish than the average American, and only one quarter the amount from meat.
By one estimate, the Japanese eat an average of up to an astonishing 100 different kinds of food per week (versus Americans at only 30, and Europeans at 45), but still mange to consume over 20 percent fewer calories than Americans. This food pattern is relatively low in calories, high in nutrients, and more efficiently filling by being lower in calorie density or “calories per bite”. This will help minimize the risks of obesity and the hosts of illnesses it triggers, and maximize the probability of a long, healthy life.
2. Celebrate Food Joy and Flexible Restraint
In a series of experiments, studies and discoveries that have unfolded over the past two decades at institutions in the UK, the US and elsewhere, researchers have come to some stark, surprising and sometimes sharply counterintuitive observations. The research suggests that parents should “lighten up” about their children’s eating habits, cut out food stress and pressure, and consider doing much the opposite of what many parents do. As child-feeding specialist Dr. Lucy Cooke puts it, “Some restriction is necessary — it’s the total ban on certain foods that backfires.” Highly controlling practices may undermine a child’s ability to develop and exercise self-control over his or her own eating.
Parents should be responsible for selecting the foods for children to eat, but it should be up to the child to decide how much. Adults should trust their children’s ability to regulate their own food intakes. As dietician Connie Evers has put it, “The parent’s role is to offer a variety of healthful foods, oversee the planning and assembly of meals, and set the schedule for meals and snacks. The child’s responsibility is to decide what, how much, and even whether to eat.”
Practice flexible restrain, not sever food restriction, or food demonization. Encourage your child to enjoy occasional treats and snacks — but in the proper amounts and frequencies, which are much smaller and less frequent than those that are typical in the West. Many experts suggest that relaxed, moderate restraint toward less-healthy food, rather than rigid, frequent restriction — an idea you could call “flexible restraint” — can be a rewarding path towards healthy eating in children.
The lesson might be: just don’t bring the less-healthy stuff home. As leading child-feeding researcher Dr. Leann Birch put it, “Take the kid out for ice cream once or twice a week, but don’t keep it in the house.”
3. Inspire Your Child to Enjoy New Foods
Gently encourage your children to try to enjoy a wide variety of different healthy foods, including many different fruits and vegetables. Children’s food likes and dislikes change over time, and parents can gently steer them towards healthier patterns, by exposing them to a wide variety of choices and by setting an example. The earlier and wider a child’s experience with sampling new healthy foods, the healthier their diet will become through childhood.
To achieve this, serve your children what the family eats. Preparing a separate “kids meal” of special foods and dishes for children who are developmentally ready to eat family foods is usually a bad idea, as it unintentionally delays and discourages children from joining the natural rhythm of family meals.
Parents can reduce, or even reverse, their child’s dislike for a food by providing adequate food and portion sizes at mealtimes and promoting social interaction and themselves as role models for eating behaviors. Repeated opportunities for a child to sample new foods leads to their trying more, eating more and liking more. This insight can inspire you to continue to tempt your children with new tastes through their childhood, because their taste can mature, expand and change constantly as they grow up — right into adulthood. Infants may need only one exposure to a new food to sharply increase their eating and liking it; and children over two years old might need significantly more — up to 20 exposures. So don’t give up much too early. Keep offering new foods, even small “tasting” samples — without pressure. As my grandmother Tsune often said, echoing a bit of Japanese folk wisdom, “a new food prolongs one’s life”.
4. Rebalance the Family Plate — With Japanese-style Portions
By now, most of us know that the average serving sizes of ready and restaurant meals went super-sized and out of control over the past 20 years, causing us to mindlessly over-eat which in turn leads to obesity and lifestyle-related illnesses. How should you normalize portions? Simply give your larger serving plates a break (put them up on the highest shelf) and serve meals on smaller plates, like the side, salad, bread plates, you already have — plates about four- to six-inches in diameter, and the bowls about one- to three-inches, holding about 100–200ml.
The idea of using smaller plates is gathering momentum among various dietary research experts. Prof. Jennifer Orlet Fisher, director of the Temple University Center for Obesity Research and Education and its Family Eating Laboratory, found that children tend not to serve themselves huge portions when left to their own devices. She calls “research-supported, mother-tested strategies” that indicate that smaller portions and smaller plates may give your child a critical health advantage. She feels that offering children smaller plates could be helpful in keeping portion size, and appetite, in proper perspective.
In a Penn State University study of 72 children aged three to five years, researchers found that serving a vegetable soup at the beginning of a meal was an effect way to both boosting a child’s vegetable intake and reducing overall calories consumed at the meal 2. In another Penn State University study, researchers found that increasing the portion size of vegetables served to preschool children at the start of a meal can lead to increased vegetable consumption 3. They recommend that childcare providers promote vegetable consumption in young children by serving large portions of vegetables at the start of a meal.
The lessons from Japan: serve food on smaller plates — but don’t skimp on the fruit and veggies!
5. Inspire Your Child to Enjoy Daily Physical Activity
Encourage your child to enjoy a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per day, which can be as simple as power-walking to school or free play in the playground.
According to the American Heart Association, in active children are likely to become inactive adults. But the good news is that physical activity helps with controlling weight, reducing blood pressure, raising HDL (“good”) cholesterol, reducing the risk of diabetes and some kinds of cancer, and improving psychological well-being, including gaining more self-confidence and higher self-esteem.
Researchers have found that Japan has exceptionally high rates (98.3 per cent) of walking or biking to school among children compared with other similar-income countries. This is linked Japan’s low levels of childhood obesity. The World Health Organization reports that appropriate levels of physical activity for 5–17-year-olds contribute to the development of healthy bones, muscles and joints, as well as a healthy cardiovascular system, coordination and movement control, improving control over symptoms of anxiety and depression, and providing opportunities for a child’s self-expression, social interaction and integration.
Children love to play. It’s natural for them and they will find all kinds of ways to play if they are given the opportunity. Send your child outside to play in safe environments. The wisdom of this, and the research to support it, is clear: children are biologically engineered to move, run and jump, and when they do, they perform better at school, are happier and more focused. And the health benefits of this lifestyle habit may be substantial in helping to give our children the longest, healthiest lives possible.
6. Nurture a Wrap-around Family Lifestyle
Create a wrap-around home environment that supports healthy food and lifestyle choices.
Make breakfast the most important meal of the day. The focus on not skipping breakfast is considered very important. According to the 2010 Japanese Government’s National Academic Scholarly Learning Ability Survey of 11- and 12-year-olds, there was a significant association between eating breakfast and better academic performance on language and maths tests.
Eat family meals together as a regular routine. The idea of eating family meals together is a practice that many families around the world, including in Japan, are finding harder and harder to pull off, as parents work later and after-school schedules get over-stressed. But it is a goal worth heroically striving for, because the potential health benefits for children appear to be huge. Here are just a few examples:
- A research paper published in the November 2014 issue of Pediatrics (“Childhood Obesity and Interpersonal Dynamics During Family Meals”) reported that warmth, group enjoyment and parental positive reinforcement at family meals were significantly associated with reduced risk of childhood overweight and obesity.
- According to the Center for Families at Purdue University, surveys indicate that 80 per cent of families value mealtimes together, but only 33 per cent successfully achieve daily family meals. They found that the quality of food is higher where family meals are taken, plus there is less overweight, enhanced language skills and academic performance, improved social skills and family unity, and a reduction in risk-taking behaviors.
Practice healthy, delicious cooking and eating as an example for your children. The idea of bringing children into the kitchen as a pathway to health was supported by a study of a group of six-to ten-year-old children published in the August 2014 journal Appetite. The study says that involving children in the preparation of healthy and balanced meals could be a valuable intervention strategy to improve their diets.
7. Be Your Child’s Lifestyle Authority
Communicate food and lifestyle habits to your children in an authoritative rather than an authoritarian style. The insight is for us to be our children’s example, leader, model and authority by communicating lifestyle habits to them in an authoritative style.
Based on the evidence, for many parents an authoritative style, pioneered in the early 1960s by the psychologist Diana Baumrind, is an excellent choice. A wide variety of childhood development experts endorses it, and it appears to have a sharp health payoff for children. Establish guidelines and rules that your children are expected to follow, and they are responsive, listen to questions and be nurturing and strategic in your approach to discipline. Be assertive, but not intrusive and restrictive. Be supportive, rather than punitive. “The authoritative model of discipline”, Baumrind wrote, “is characterized by the use of firm control contingently applied and justified by rational explanation of consistently enforced rules.” It is possible for us as parents, anywhere in the world, to build an environment for children that, although far from perfect, can inspire them towards adopting tastes and habits that will increase their chances of enjoying as long and healthy a life as it’s possible for them to experience.
Searching for the secrets to help my child enjoy an optimal lifestyle and delicious meals for his maximum health and longevity, I was reminded to go back to the way of life in my grandparents’ and parents’ times. I was reminded that meals are to be enjoyed together with family over joyous conversations. In this ordinary daily routine, my job is to prepare and serve what I know and believe to be a selection of delicious nutritious dishes to my family. In this relaxed family meal environment, my son’s job is to select what he eats and how much of it he eats. Over time, he will naturally know when, what, and how much he needs to eat on his own.
The lessons of the “World’s Healthiest Children” are not that there is anything inherently Japanese about healthy longevity, nor is there anything inherently better or more enlightened about Japanese children, Japanese parents or Japanese foods. There are lessons we can put into action in any family’s lifestyle, no matter where we live.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Naomi Moriyama is a Manhattan mom and co-author of Secrets of the World’s Healthiest Children: Why Japanese Children Have the Longest, Healthiest Lives — And How Yours Can Too, a guide to helping your children enjoy an optimal lifestyle and delicious meals for their maximum health and longevity, now available on amazon.com.
Naomi is also co-author of Japanese Women Don’t Get Old or Fat: Secrets of My Mother’s Tokyo Kitchen (translated into 20 languages) and The Japan Diet. She is a delicious healthy foodie, and self-taught home-chef. She grew up in Tokyo, and now lives in New York City with her nine-year-old son and her husband and co-author, William Doyle.
1 Healthy life expectancy [HALE] for 187 countries, 1990–2010: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden Disease Study 2010,’ Lancet, 15 December 2012–4 January 2013. HALE is a snapshot-ranking of projected healthy life expectancy for a child born today, based on current forces of health and mortality.
2 Appetite, August 2011.
3 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2010.
Originally published at medium.com