Why is it so Easy to be Thin in Japan?
If you’ve ever been Japan, you may have
noticed that it’s really hard to find an
obese Japanese person.
In the United States, it’s quite a different
The rate of obesity among adults in America
is on average around 30% whereas the Japan
obesity rate is only 3.5%.
But what makes the weight of people in these
two countries so different?
“Why Japanese people?”
At first, I was thinking about things like…
Japanese people drink a lot of green tea and
they get a decent amount of fermented foods
like kimuchi or nattou which is great for
the gut microbiome.
But, in this video I want to focus on a very
simple yet key point about Japan.
The food environment is drastically different
from the US.
As of 2017 there’s over 243,000 Fast food
establishments in America.
There’s only 6,169 establishments in Japan,
meaning per person, there’s about 15 times
more fast food restaurants in America.
Then again, in Japan, fast food, fried food,
chips, chocolate, candy, soda, and not so
healthy things are still available wherever
But there’s a huge variety of equally convenient
reasonably healthy food.
Let’s say I’m the average busy person
in the states who would like to be healthy
but doesn’t have time to cook at home.
What’s for breakfast?
Most people’s options are limited to things
like a McGriddle with Hashbrowns and coffee,
or maybe an Egg and processed Cheese sandwich
with tater tots at Dunkin’ Donuts, or some
pancakes at Denny’s if you have more time.
Surely some people have more healthy options,
but I’m trying to think of what most people
are going to have access to.
So what’s a quick breakfast in Japan?
While there’s more than 6000 fast food establishments
in Japan, there’s also 5000 “rice bowl”
The big ones are Yoshinoya, Sukiya and Matsuya.
And for 4 dollars at Sukiya, for breakfast
you can get Plain Rice, Miso Soup with Seaweed,
an Egg, baked fish, and a small potato salad
comes with it.
If I’m extra hungry maybe I’ll add some kimchi,
fermented soybeans and stewed beef for 4 more
Or, you can put together a reasonably healthy
meal from a convenience store.
At a Japanese convenience store I can get
a rice ball which is just rice, salmon and
salt… a small salad, or a package of sushi,
or a thing of fish with miso…
Or some soup.
I was pretty impressed with how little junk
is in this: it’s basically just vegetables,
pork and fish broth.
And, there’s a bunch of different foods
like this – here’s what I can get for under
10 dollars USD.
Compare this to what’s available in American
convenience stores – they’re limited to
fried foods sitting under heat lamps or foods
loaded with trans fat, sugar, preservatives
and unhealthy additives.
If you’re lucky you might be able to get
a package of plain nuts with nothing added.
So the items in Japanese convenience stores
are not top quality health foods, but they’re
This is big because practically everyone has
access to these places, convenience stores
like these are everywhere.
Japan has about 55,000 convenience stores
meaning there’s about 10 times more convenience
stores per square kilometer in Japan compared
For most, these places are in walking distance.
I understand that of course there are healthy
restaurants here and there in America and
you can make a really healthy meal with ingredients
from the supermarket.
But when it comes to cheap, convenient and
quick food – it’s almost always quite unhealthy.
In Japan, for a quick lunch, I can go to burger
king, or right next door I can get some sushi.
I can get a Hamburger and some Popcorn at
…Vandalism cafe (?), or I can go next door
to Matsuya and get a bowl of spicy tofu soup
with a bit of beef, green onion and cabbage,
some pork, a soft boiled egg, some mustard
spinach, rice and there’s free pickled ginger
to go with it.
And of course there are many healthier non-chain
places that offer many different types of
And this variety is important.
It’s going to be much easier to stick to
healthier options if you aren’t getting
bored of having to eat the same things at
the same places over and over.
Even if you’re going out to drink with friends
at dinner time, there’s still a variety
of good food choices.
The standard place to drink at is an izakaya
– at 10,000 establishments, there’s almost
twice as many izakayas as there are fast food
places in Japan.
Replacing fast food for alcohol is not a good
strategy, but let’s see what one of the
common izakaya chains have to offer in the
way of food.
Let me point out one more time that there’s
of course much better quality food than what
you get at convenience stores, rice bowl chains
or izakayas and this is not what most Japanese
people eat on a daily basis.
I’m not really recommending these places
either – Most Japanese people wouldn’t think
of these places as “healthy”.
But, this isn’t about optimal health.
I just mean to point out that even someone
who puts minimal effort into being healthy
can get some reasonable quality meals out
of these very convenient places.
By the way, what’s everyone drinking with
and between meals?
In America, more often than not it’s soda,
considering a survey of 80 countries found
that America comes in at rank #1 for soda
consumption at 170 liters purchased per person
Japan came in at rank #56 at 32 liters per
In Japan most places serve tea with your meal
for free and in general it’s harder to purchase
massive quantities of soda – there’s no
comically large big gulps at seven eleven,
I haven’t seen these packs of soda here, and
Japan has the smallest “large” cup size
at McDonald’s – An American medium size
drink is bigger than a Japanese large.
Another factor to thank for keeping people’s
soda intake low is again: variety.
What’s interesting is despite Japan drinking
5 times less soda than America, soda is available
in vending machines everywhere in Japan.
There’s 5.52 million vending machines, meaning
there is a vending machine for every 23 people
in Japan – that’s the highest vending machine
per capita on the planet.
So what’s in these vending machines?
Why don’t we take a look at this vending
machine I came across on the side of the road
in the middle of nowhere in Hakone.
Among other things, They have black coffee,
six different types of unsweetened tea and
A typical american vending machine offers
13 varieties of drink, the only non-sweet
one being water.
So convenience and variety – simple, but it
makes a difference.
It’s easier to pick the healthy choices
when they are just as easy and convenient
as the unhealthier choices.
Now this is by no means the full story on
Japan and health, but I think these are two
I’ll be doing another video on some of the
many other things that contribute to health
in Japan, so if there’s a particular point
you want to hear discussed leave a comment