I Grew Up Overweight and Stressed About My Body—These 4 Japanese Principles Helped Me Find My Health Again

The secret to a sustainable diet is not willpower, but finding balance.Kaki Okumura

  • Kaki Okumura is a Japanese wellness writer and illustrator who lived in the US until the age of 12.

  • Okumura struggled with obesity and tried numerous diet tactics, but none of them worked.

  • Her book “Wa: The Art of Balance” will be released in March and focuses on 4 Japanese practices that have helped her.

This essay from told is based on a conversation with Kaki Okumura, author of “Wa: The Art of Balance,” a book to be published on March 14. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I remember looking down at the family photo and feeling my heart sink. I could not help myself. Apparently I was the only overweight one.

I’m Japanese, but growing up in the US until the age of 12, I faced a health challenge that many other Americans face: being overweight.

If my family had shared this problem with me, maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my journey.

But my family just didn’t struggle the way I did, perhaps because most of them lived in Japan, a country that leads the way in longevity and has very low obesity rates.

My parents were nice and never shamed me for my body, but I still couldn’t help but feel a lot of pressure to change the way I looked. So I embarked on a number of diet tactics—trying everything from calorie restriction and intermittent fasting to low-carb eating. Some worked with varying degrees of success, but none were sustainable.

At least not until I moved to Japan.

I’ve always had the image in my mind that people in Japan eat very healthily – that they don’t eat fried food, meat or ice cream – and most of their meals are made up of rice, fish and steamed vegetables.

matcha desserts

Matcha desserts are one of the most popular treats in Japan.Kaki Okumura

But after living there, I began to realize that Japan is like any other developed country: there are snacks, there is fast food, and they certainly indulge in sweets. It was clear that the Japanese also regularly enjoyed these foods.

So what’s the secret? It’s in balance.

Since following these 4 principles, I have never struggled or worried about the way I ate.

1. Moderation

One of the first things people visiting Japan will say about the food is how small the portions are. When you go out to eat in Japan, you’ll probably be able to finish it in one go, while in the US you’ll probably want a takeout box.

Japanese food

Portions served in Japanese restaurants are often adequate.Kaki Okumura

But these moderate portions are one of the key reasons why people in Japan often eat whatever they want—and many without a strict exercise routine. When you eat in moderation, nothing should be off-limits, and you can relax about eating birthday cake or steak to celebrate a promotion at work. Therefore, we feel less stressed about food.

I realized that sustainable healthy eating isn’t about willpower or self-discipline, it’s about being able to include the foods we love in moderation.

2. Variety

When you go to a Japanese restaurant in Japan, you often find a set meal consisting of rice, miso soup, a protein dish, and a few vegetable side dishes. Dishes can range from grilled fish and steamed spinach to deep fried chicken and salad.

Japanese food

Eating a variety of foods at mealtimes helps keep your diet balanced and your mind happy.Kaki Okumura

The key point is not so much the dish itself, but that there is such a wide variety of dishes in one meal. This way, people can easily get a variety of nutrients without having too much of one thing.

We need carbohydrates, fats, fiber and protein, but instead of having to think about how to put them together, the Japanese style builds balance into every meal by having different mini meals.

Variety also keeps meals interesting so you don’t feel restricted or deprived while eating everything your body requires.

3. Simplicity

I’ve found that vegetables are often treated as a necessary evil in the US. There’s no shortage of recipes and articles that are phrased like “How to make vegetables taste good” or “Vegetable dishes you’ll actually want to eat.”

With the assumption that vegetables don’t taste good, we end up with recipes that will do anything to mask the taste – often with large amounts of salt, butter or sugar.

In contrast, in Japan the narrative about vegetables is the opposite: that they are delicious.

Japanese dude

Popular dishes often include a significant variety and quantity of vegetables.Kaki Okumura

It is common for vegetable dishes to be lightly seasoned, often steamed or even raw, such as the shredded cabbage that often comes with tonkatsu, a Japanese pork cutlet.

Popular Japanese films, such as Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, have entire scenes of children eating ordinary fresh vegetables with gusto.

Totoro vegetables

Vegetables are not ingredients that Japanese children fear.My Neighbor Totoro/Studio Ghibli

Once I began to realize that the ingredients we use to cook are delicious, I began to focus on how to enhance and complement those flavors instead of masking them.

Sometimes the most important ingredient is the one you’re missing.

4. Self-compassion

This was the most difficult principle to grasp, but it was the most important.

When I overeat, I ended up feeling bad about myself. Sometimes I may feel guilty, ashamed, or weak.

One idea that helped me at times like this was the Japanese phrase “kuchisabishii”. This is a commonly used phrase that directly translates to “lonely mouth” but refers to snacking out of boredom or when we eat without intention.

But kuchisabishii is less critical in nature than phrases like binge eating or compulsive overeating because it recognizes that, like loneliness, eating out of boredom is a very natural emotion.

Japanese food

A simple home-cooked meal that comforts both the stomach and the heart.Kaki Okumura

Instead of sitting in guilt and shame, framing experiences where we may have eaten too much as a forgiving experience, we can recognize and move on with kindness.

Living in Japan has shown me that eating healthy is less about self-discipline or willpower, which aren’t helpful in building lifelong habits, and more importantly about finding balance. Food is not only fuel, but can be central to our culture, traditions, identity and values.

In March of this year, I will be publishing a book called “Wa: The Art of Balance.” “Wa”—the Japanese word used to describe Japanese things—also means harmony and represents the value of seeking balance in order to live a well-rounded life.

Read the original Insider article

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