Japan health secrets: eat 30 different foods a day

There’s something about nutrition experts that makes them pathologically obsessed with telling us to eat a certain number of foods. Take the advice doctors and dietitians regularly dish out to you to eat 5-a-day fruit and veg servings. That’s a number plucked out of thin air with nothing in the way of solid science to back it up. If you doubt it, just ask British obesity specialist Dr Zoe Harcombe. In Japan, officials love numbers even more. Advice issued in 1985 was to eat 30 different foods daily. This Reuters writer looks at how to achieve that goal without going nuts. – Marika Sboros

Japanese cuisine
This Japanese meal has miso sauce, daikon radish, salmon, omelet, purple radish, cauliflower, broccoli, carrot, burdock, chestnut, grapes, dried baby fish. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbu

By Hiroko Shimbo

Reuters – An official slogan for improving the nutrition of the Japanese population was issued by the Japanese government in 1985: “Consume Thirty Different Food Items Each Day.”

The food items were divided into six categories, and we were advised to choose evenly from each category. Each ingredient, it was said – meat, poultry and fish, soybeans, grains, vegetables and fruits, milk products, and sea vegetables – contains its own nutritional properties, so following this slogan will help to create balanced meals.

Even before this public announcement, there was a growing awareness that the Japanese diet since the turn of the 20th century had succumbed to influence from the West. It was thought that we must return to our own traditional diet to achieve optimum nutrition.

Just for fun, from time to time I still count how many different food items I have consumed in a single day.

This practice was instilled in me by my mother. Recently I made the count for all three meals, and found I’d consumed 21 separate foods on that day; far short of the government’s recommendation. This caused me to think. How and why did this government recommendation come about? Is it still a realistic guiding principle?

Here is what I found:

Until 1868, Japan lagged far behind Western countries in technology, science and engineering because of the closure of the country to foreign trade for 260 years. Even the small physical stature of the Japanese population was blamed on a poor, very limited Japanese diet that was based on small quantities of rice, fish, soybean products, with some vegetables and seaweeds.

The Meiji Emperor encouraged the population to begin consuming beef, a food item previously banned for ordinary citizens. Newly imported Western ingredients included meat, meat products, milk and butter, and new preparation techniques led to the creation of new “Japanese” dishes that were called “yo-shoku” (Japanized Western dishes).

Yo-shoku dishes with their rich flavors and large servings instantly became national favorites: beef steak, pork cutlet, curry and rice, “omu-rice” (stir-fried morsels of chicken and rice, seasoned with tomato ketchup and wrapped in an omelet), to name a few.

Dietary changes brought risks

During the heyday of Japanese boom-times in 1970-1990, even more varieties of Western foods became available and popular (provided by the major Western fast-food companies). And Japanese began consuming increasing quantities of rare cheeses, foie gras and expensive wines.

These dietary changes came with hefty penalties: Diabetes became more widespread. Heart disease became the number No. 2 killer in Japan. And — this was formerly unthinkable — morbid obesity is now present in the country.

Meals dominated by fat, meat, meat products, egg, sugar and milk products push up calorie consumption but not the number of daily food items. The broad categories of foods of the traditional complete Japanese diet such as seafood, seaweed, vegetables and more fruits are lacking. So the 1985 rule was an attempt to bring variety back to the everyday diet.

Want to try eating 30 different foods in a day? Choose at least two items from each of the six food categories. Since consuming vegetables and fruits is good for our health, add two additional items from categories 3 and 4. If you do this, you will easily approach 20 separate food items — a good start for reaching the goal of 30 items that the Japanese government recommended.

By following this practice, you can change the way you plan and prepare meals to the benefit of your health.

Six categories of food items

Here’s what they provide:

1. Meat, fish, poultry, egg, tofu products (protein).

2. Small fish that can be eaten whole with bones, milk and milk products (calcium).

3. Green and yellow vegetables (carotene, plus other vitamins and minerals).

4. Other vegetables and fruits (vitamin C, plus other vitamins and minerals).

5. Grains, potato, bread/cakes/cookies (carbohydrates).

6. Cooking oil, nut and seed oils, nuts and seeds (fat).

Rules to follow

This Japanese style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbun
This Japanese style fish stew includes porgy, squid and hard-shell clam. Credit: Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbun

As you begin your “Thirty Different Food Items Each Day” project, please observe the following rules. Do not count the same ingredient twice. Do not count ingredients used for garnishes in soups, salads and the like; they have minimal nutritional and caloric value. You can, however, count ketchup, mayonnaise and sauces, which have substantial caloric content.

When you reach 21 food items in a day, please send me photos and a description of the meals. I will share them with my audience.

Before then, please enjoy this stir-fried rice recipe, which gives you a 7 score for the dish.

Seven Score Vegetable Stir-Fried Rice

Prep time: 45 minutes

Cook time: 4 minutes

Total time: 49 minutes

Yield: 4 servings


3 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup chopped onion

Sea salt

1 cup chopped carrot

1/4 cup chopped fennel bulb or celery

3 1/2 ounces kale; leaves, cut into thin slices crosswise; stems, cut into thin slices slanted

4 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (preferably made a day in advance)

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tablespoons butter

1 to 2 teaspoons shoyu

Freshly ground black pepper corn


Heat a wok or deep skillet over medium heat and add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil. When the oil is hot, add the onion along with pinch of salt and cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Add the carrot, fennel bulb and kale stem along with pinch of sea salt and cook, stirring, 2 minutes. Add the kale leaves, and cook, stirring, 30 seconds. Move the vegetables to one end of the wok (or transfer to a temporary bowl). Add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in the empty space of the wok.

When the oil is hot, add the rice and cook, over medium heat, stirring, until the rice is fully heated up, or about 2 minutes. Then combine and toss the rice with the cooked vegetables. Add the pine nuts and give several large stirs. Add the butter, soy sauce and freshly ground black pepper and toss the mixture thoroughly. Divide the rice among 4 plates and serve hot. – Copyright 2016 Hiroko Shimbo via Zester Daily and Reuters Media Express

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