UNESCO enrolled traditional Japanese dietary cultures, or Washoku, in the list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2013, and Washoku has grown into a big and fast-spreading international trend since then.

Sushi is THE flagship dish of Washoku in the global market (although it is not necessarily in Japan) and it may look healthier than most dishes in Western cuisine, but it’s hype on healthiness has been challenged already. Now it is more commonly known that it’s in fact more of an upscale version of junk food.

So how about Japanese food in general? Is it really healthy? The answer is, again, NO, not Japanese food itself.

Japanese people do live long – 85 years on average – which is the 3rd longest in the world ranking. They live around 5 years longer than people in the U.S, which ranks at 45th place.

But their success in elongating life is not due to eating Japanese food everyday per se, but rather thanks to the education they’ve received on food and dietary practices. Japanese people have been trained in school to figure out the optimal combination of foods to help themselves maintain health.

Eating sushi everyday won’t add years to your life; you’ll actually end up with less. Eating healthily requires understanding the philosophy of Washoku – even just the mere basics of it – and that’s what this article will be about.

1. “Shoku-iku” – Japanese food education

“You are what you eat” is not just a proverbial advice in Japan. Japanese municipalities are obliged to make an effort to equip their citizens with the proper knowledge of food, and selecting food, in order to maintain a healthy diet. This movement is called “Shoku-iku” which literally means “food education.”

Shoku-iku starts from pre-school and kindergarten and continues up to the end of Grade 6, where school kids as young as 2 to 12 learn about the basic concepts and practical techniques of Washoku, generally in the order below:

2 year-olds– Try and learn the joy of having various foods and dishes
– Learn the proper attitude and posture for eating meals
3-4 year-olds– Get accustomed to various ingredients
– Learn how to use utensils and the right mannerisms
5 year-olds– Learn the relationship between what you eat and your body
Grades 1-2– Learn the importance of eating 3 meals + snack a day
– Learn when certain foods are in season and when they are not
Grades 3-4– Learn how produce gets to the meal table
– Learn how produce is processed into various foods
– Learn about the roles of protein, calcium and vitamins
Grades 5-6– Learn how to select foods in order to give yourself a nutritiously balanced meal
– Learn how a poor diet links to stroke and heart attack
– Training on putting together nutritiously balanced meals
– Learn about Japanese food culture and that of other countries

So by the time elementary school is over, all kids in Japanese schools will have gone through formal training on nutrition and food culture (given that they were paying attention in class).

In reality, because of the abundance of fast food and tasty Western eateries in modern-day Japan, it’s harder than ever to resist the temptations of sugary and fatty food, and men generally tend to care less about their diets (most likely due to not listening attentively in Shoku-iku classes and also due to their traditional habit of not doing household chores), but Japanese women tend to make a conscious effort to cook at home.

Cooking at home is the only way to make sure you get all the different kinds of nutrients you need to live a healthy life (aside from taking dozens of vitamin pills) . Japanese women have traditionally taken the role of the household nutrition coach (not many Japanese take vitamin pills because ingesting artificially-made anything is considered “unnatural” and is a last resort in Japan).

According to a survey conducted by web service company CyberAgent in 2014, Japanese women spend around 7.4 hours a week cooking at home.

This is higher than the average cooking time spent by Italians, who rank at 5th place in the world rankings spending 7.1 hours a week, and Italians are the kings and queens of all developed countries (according to survey results of market research institute Gfk). Japan probably did not make it into this ranking because the figure was dragged down by Japanese males who are ignorant about cooking.

Japanese households apply what they learned through their shoku-iku classes in home-cooking, and therefore, many are able to maintain a long and healthy life. Again, it’s not eating Japanese food per se that helps – it’s education.

2. Shoku-iku tips you can use today

At school, Japanese children learn about the 5 most important nutrients:

  1. Carbohydrates – Turns into energy
  2. Lipids – Turns into energy
  3. Protein – Builds your body and muscles
  4. Minerals – Maintain your health and build bones and teeth
  5. Vitamins – Maintain your health

And they learn from which kinds of food each type of nutrient can be taken. Great stuff to know, but it’s often hard for people to remember everything unless you cook almost everyday.

But not to worry; there are easy-to-remember guidelines to cooking a healthy meal. These guidelines don’t require any brain-twisting, and still almost guarantee that you’ll make yourself a balanced meal. Keeping the following guidelines will help you to live longer.

2-1. The “1 Soup 3 Plates” guideline

Having a bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup and three other dishes is considered a complete meal in Japanese cuisine. Rice is THE staple food of Japan and all the other dishes on the table are there to accompany rice.

One out of the three other dishes will typically be some kind of meat: fish, beef, pork or chicken. The other two will be small dishes of vegetables. Given that you use different ingredients for all the dishes, it’s very likely that you’ll end up with all or most of the 5 most important nutrients.

This general rule of thumb is called “Ichiju-Sansai” 一汁三菜 which literally translates to “1 Soup 3 Plates.” As a cook, provide 1 soup and 3 plates along with rice and you should be able to create a balanced meal – that’s what the proverb helps us realize.

2-2. The “5 Colors” guideline

Another guideline that will help the home-cook make a healthy meal for the family is the “5 Colors” guideline.

If you’ve eaten at an authentic Japanese restaurant, you may remember that your meal came in a colorful presentation. In Japanese cuisine, the variety of color is an important criterion that determines a good meal. It is believed (and has been scientifically proven) that color affects your appetite. But not only does a pallet rich in color make your mouth water, it also almost-guarantees that you get a balanced diet.

Here’s a table that shows the good deeds each color group more or less provides:

RED– Iron and protein of red meat helps build your body
– Lycopene of tomatoes helps prevent cancer and heart diseases
YELLOW– Lutein of lemon helps maintain eye health
– Vitamin C of
– Flavonoid of corn helps prevent cancer and heart diseases
GREEN– Iron of spinach helps prevent anemia
– Chlorophyll of broccoli serves as a natural deodorant
PURPLE– Anthocyanin of eggplants help strengthen the immune system
– Polyphenol of blueberries helps prevent cancer and heart diseases
BROWN– Eritadenine of Shiitake mushrooms prevent cholesterol from building in your blood
– Fiber of burdok roots help reduce risk of obesity
WHITE– Carbs of white rice give you energy to live through the day
– Protein and calcium of tofu help you keep your body strong
BLACK– Vitamin C of seaweed helps your skin to stay in good shape
– Folic acid of seaweed helps to produce red blood cells

I assume most people didn’t like being bombarded with scientific terms. Neither did I or most other Japanese people. Hence, someone came up with this “5 Colors” guideline that tells you “OK, you don’t need to remember all the names of the vitamins. Just make sure you have at least 5 of these 7 colors on your table and you’ll most likely get enough nutrients.”

As Japanese supermarkets handle a very wide variety of natural foods, it’s fairly easy to gather ingredients in 5 different colors and make 1 soup and 3 dishes out of them. If your typical meal is colored predominantly brown all the time, you’ll probably develop some serious disease and die at a relatively early age.

And in case you were wondering: no, food-coloring doesn’t count.

2-3. The “4 Food Groups” guideline

Studies show that each nutrient doesn’t really help make your body stronger or immune just by intaking it by itself.

For example, just eating carbs like bread or rice doesn’t give you the energy you need to concentrate during your work or school day. In addition, you’ll need to take in Vitamin B which will help the carbs turn into energy.

Let’s say you eat pork with rice or bread, which means you are feeding yourself Vitamin B1. Further, you need to eat onion or garlic along with pork because they come with Allicin, which is a nutrient that helps your body absorb Vitamin B1.

Like so, different nutrients complement each other to do some good to your body. Therefore, ideally, you need to eat the right foods with the right nutrients in the right combinations.

But remembering each nutrient, its hosts and its effects and interaction with others is a pain in the butt, so Japanese food nutritionists have devised a way for ordinary people to end up with the right combinations without involving too much memorization. We group foods into 4 big groups and try to put something from all groups on the dining table for each meal.

Group 1: Dairy and Eggs

Dairy products such as yogurt, milk and cheese come with calcium and protein. You need calcium to make sure your bones are strong and you need protein to build your muscle. Beware if you eat bacon or sausages everyday: Phosphorus, which is found in processed meat, induces calcium to be let out of your body.

Eggs also come with iron, which is essential in creating blood cells. If you get tired easily or have trouble concentrating for a long time, you’re probably deficient of iron.

Group 2: Meat, fish and soy

Mix of steak meat : salmon , beef , pork and chicken

Red meat provides proteins and also iron. Fish come with DHA, which helps enhance your brain, and also Vitamin D, which is good for your immunity and bone building.

Soy produce such as tofu gives you protein, calcium and iron. Whoever was first to try sticking in some tofu in salad made a very good call.

Group 3: Veggies, potatoes and fruits

Vegetables (including mushrooms) and fruits come with various kinds of vitamins and minerals that you need in order to prevent illness and maintain health.

Potatoes include carbohydrates and fiber, the latter of which will help to keep your digestive health and lower your cholesterol levels. Many kinds of potatoes come with Vitamin C, too.

Group 4: Bread, rice and noodles

Rice, bread and noodles are great sources of carbs. You need energy to concentrate at work or school. If you can’t concentrate, you won’t get much work done or retain much knowledge. If you don’t get work done, you’ll fail to advance in your career. A no-carbs diet is the stupidest fad diet out there. Don’t buy into it.

3. The secret: proper knowledge about food

By just eating meat and working out all the time, you’ll end up being buff but not tough. You’ll tire easily because you haven’t had carbs. You’ll probably stink too because you’re not eating anything to suppress odor.

If you grow up only eating vegetables, you’ll end up being short because you won’t get enough calcium to grow and strengthen your bones. Your skin and hair will look horrible because you’re not giving them proteins. You’ll probably shiver all the time in fall and winter because vegetables such as tomatoes, lettuce and cabbage lower your temperature.

No individual food is all-mightily good for you. The secret to attaining and maintaining health through eating is in:

  • being aware that each food has its own strengths and weaknesses
  • combining different kinds of foods each meal to achieve a balanced diet

If you’re the coach of a baseball team, sending out 9 great pitchers on the field won’t let you win a game. You need a great 1st, 2nd, 3rd baseman, a catcher, a shortstop and 3 outfielders working together with the pitcher.

The same idea goes with meals, and that basically explains the unique trait of Washoku and the reason eating with the philosophy of Washoku in mind helps Japanese people live long.