Look, it’s Japan. You’re going to see donuts that look like cute kittens, parfait desserts that pile up higher than your face with your jaw open, and plastic food models that sometimes look tastier than real food. And chances are, you’re going to want to eat all of them.
But wait, you have goals to keep your weight the same because you didn’t come to Japan to get a muffin top; or you want to lose a little weight; or you just want to eat healthy because your body is a temple or something. If you’re staying in Japan for more than a couple weeks, it’s not going to be easy fighting the temptation to junk-gorge on anything and everything that starts with f- and ends in -ood and not have your goals ruined.
The good news is, healthy eating is totally doable in Sushi Paradise.
Throughout this post, I’ll share key tips on eating healthy while you have a longer stay in Japan and still enjoying the hell out of yourself. I’m also going to assume that your funds are not an issue. You don’t have to be ballin’ out of control, but eating and buying healthier food in Tokyo especially are going to burn through your wallet. I’ll assume you’ll be okay. That said, there are a couple of main barriers to eating healthy in Japan:
- You have to work harder to get enough protein (without loading up on a bunch of fat and carbohydrates).
- Fruits and vegetables can be expensive.
- It’s too tempting to eat at restaurants because the foods look and taste amazing, obviously, but also sometimes restaurant meals are just more cost-effective.
Before I dive into this more, I want to be clear about my diet philosophy. I follow flexible dieting principles, or IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros). Essentially, that means I don’t believe any foods are “off limits,” as long as they fit your overall healthy eating plan. I’m writing this (and other healthy eating-related posts) from the perspective that being flexible with your diet, with true balance and health in mind, is the key to being able to enjoy yourself in Japan and anywhere else.
For me, this means that I tornado my way through all of the local delicacies, whatever they may be, while never losing sight of my fitness-related goals of looking a certain way and maintaining the muscles I work hard to build from my workouts. So I mainly keep track of the amount of protein and fats I eat. I’ll explain why in a sec.
Most Japanese foods actually have nutrition information and it’s not impossible to keep track of macronutrients or calories, but there are still some important considerations.
Don’t Be Fooled By the “Healthfulness”
Rice? Good. Miso? Yum. Fish? Yes, please. Pickled vegetables and fresh noodles? Nom. Animal organs (beef tendons, chicken liver, chicken hearts, and others)? Give me all of it.
No one can argue that those individual components aren’t healthy. Things start to look a little sketch, though, when they’re doused in highly sugary sauces and/or deep-fried.
I’m not saying that Japanese food isn’t healthy because it sure as hell beats the snot out of the typical American diet. The trap is being fooled into thinking the food here is automatically better for you because you’re comparing it to an American diet and the fact that most Japanese locals seem pretty slim. Then you might give yourself a pass to eat more.
This is the halo effect, which creates an illusion of “healthfulness.” If you’re American going to Japan, for example, you’ll likely believe that the Japanese equivalents of familiar foods are healthier and feel good eating them.
The reality is that controlling portions and amounts are still mucho important.
If it’s any consolation, I’ve noticed that restaurant food in Japan is overall less greasy and sometimes less salty, compared to food in America. For desserts, they are less sweet. Still, Japanese food can be surprisingly fatty. Here are some examples:
- Bakery bread: A myriad of the bakery goods, while heavenly and delicious, are close to 20 grams of fat a pop. This includes things like the popular melon bread (meron pan).
- Tempura: This is typically shrimp and a variety of vegetables, such as kabocha squash, mushrooms, potatos, carrots, eggplant, and so on, that have been coated in panko crumbs and lightly fried stuff.
- Croquettes: Deep-fried mass of deliciousness that’s made out of mashed potatoes or other vegetables, and then stuffed with vegetables or sometimes minced meat.
- Katsu: Proteins (typically pork or chicken) that’s dipped in egg, flour, and panko crumbs, and pan-fried.
- Wagyu beef: The famous Japanese beef, where cows are supposedly given the spa treatment and produce buttery-soft beef, but is super fatty.
- Yakitori: These are skewers of chicken and chicken parts. Usually, it’s chicken thigh, liver, ass (not even joking here), cartilage, and wing.
- Grilled fish: Fish is okay, but even the smaller portions contain about 10 grams of fat on average.
- Sukiyaki: This is a one-pot, boiling dish that’s served in a sweet broth and other vegetables. Then you dip fatty cuts of protein.
- Gyudon: Heard of Yoshinoya and their beef bowls? Gyudon is a beef bowl, which includes fatty cuts of beef stir fried with onions and topped over rice.
- ‘Hamburg’ steak: Japanese people love their hamburger patties (“hamburguh sutaki”). They’ll eat it over rice and other sauces, but I’m guessing the meat they use is of the 80 percent or less lean variety.
- Yakiniku: Japanese barbecue, where it’s often fatty cuts of meat that you grill.
- Unagi: Freakin’ delicious eel but is naturally high in fat.
- Ramen: Ramen varies a lot, but most broths, especially the tonkatsu or miso variety, are actually crazy high in fat and sodium.
I estimate that the average sized dish has about 30-60 grams of fat per meal. On the other hand, this makes Japan Paleo diet heaven.
Clearly, Japanese food can be on the higher end of fat, but don’t get me wrong: I don’t think of fat as a six-headed Medusa baby that I need to avoid. (This, by the way, is an illuminating read on the whole “fat debate”.) For me, fat is still just a lot of calories, which simply means you get to eat fewer other delicious things in your day without going overboard.
Protein Is “Easy.” The Hard Part Is Controlling Fat.
In Japan, protein is easy to come by, but–and this is a big but–here’s the thing about eating protein in general: rarely are you eating only protein.
Obviously, you’re eating food that contains protein, but depending on what it is and how it’s prepared, you get carbs and fat, too. A lot of protein-rich foods in Japan carry hefty fat baggage. Of course, if you follow Paleo principles (high protein, moderate/high fat), then this applies less to you. If, however, you cherish your carbs (refined or otherwise), go for leaner protein sources like egg whites and tuna.
The local grocery markets, and hell, even the convenience stores have a number of great protein options, such as packaged, pre-cooked chicken breasts, string cheese, low fat milk, Greek yogurt (only in 7-11 and Mini-Stop convenience stores usually), and grilled squid. In fact, I wrote about the various protein sources in Japan, as well as where and how to get them (check out the post How and Where to Get Protein in Japan).
Always Eat Breakfasts At Home
Your main plan of attack is to minimize fat intake whenever you have control and wherever possible.
Breakfast is usually the easiest time to do this since most Japanese restaurants don’t even open until 11 a.m. As a matter of fact, Japanese culture doesn’t necessarily have breakfast staples in the same way some other cultures do. I mean, locals do eat breakfast. Traditional fare includes miso soup, rice, grilled fish, or fermented soybeans (natto); or just toasted bread. Waffles and pancakes, for example, are treated as dessert items, rather than a meal eaten in the morning.
You can use breakfast time to your advantage since the restaurant options are more limited. So load up on protein early in the day and keep fats low.
I found myself eating breakfast at home about 99 percent of the time. And hey, if you don’t eat breakfast, don’t force yourself. Since I’m a Westernized breakfast eater, I typically fry some egg whites and eat those with a piece of toast (which is so addicting here). Or oatmeal mixed with protein powder and egg whites. Yes, you can find oatmeal and protein powder here (see below).
If you don’t have a kitchen or are short on time, you can make a quick trip to Mini-Stop or 7-11 convenience store for a rice ball (onigiri) or a prepared sandwich. The one with ham and eggs has a decent carbs-fat-protein combination.
Yo, What About Fiber?
Okay, if you’re eating every meal at a restaurant, don’t expect to get many greens outside of ordering salads and the occasional mound of shredded cabbage some restaurants serve.
You’ll have to hunt for them. You can buy pre-washed veggies in single serving sizes from grocery stores. You can also find frozen vegetables at places like Seiyu. Convenience stores also have packaged salads or pre-cut vegetables. All-you-can-eat shabu shabu (hot pot) or yakiniku (barbecued meat) places are one way to play catch-up on veggies, but you and I both know that you don’t go to these places to gorge yourself on plants.
Also, vegetables aren’t the only way to get fiber. A lot of fermented foods, such as pickled plums, miso, natto, and other things that are generally considered beneficial for gut health all literally help with that crap.
Order Healthy Foods Online
If you’re staying in Japan long term, I highly recommend ordering stuff from iHerb.com. They carry supplements, Quest bars and other protein bars, and protein powder. You can also find coconut oil, coconut flour, oatmeal, peanut butter (a godsend!), quinoa, chocolate chip cookies (oh, are they not healthy?), and a bunch of other Western “healthy food” staples.
During my stay in Japan, I was missing certain brands of cereal and snacks, but I happily found them on iHerb.com. The bonus is that they offer free shipping, too.
Eating Healthy at Restaurants
Restaurants in Japan have a ton to offer. Their dedication to quality is unrivaled. Whether you’re eating at a convenience store, a fast food restaurant, or a fancy sit-down restaurant, you can expect oh-so-delicious quality. And as you pay more for food, expect the quality to only go up and up. That said, there are a ton of good cheap eats with healthy options, too.
- Saizeriya: Saizeriya is a very affordable Japanese-Italian chain restaurant. Think Denny’s style, but with salads, pastas, pizzas, and rice dishes. Their menus actually have the calorie information included, but when I eat here, I go for a salad and some sides. I’ve tried a few of the pastas, but expect it to be on the higher end with fats.
- Convenience Stores: When all else fails, you go to a convenience store. Selections in every convenience store chain are going to vary, but for the most part, you’ll always find onigiri. In my experience, 7-11’s tend to have the greatest variety of “healthy options,” ranging from prepackaged salads and a lot of other prepackaged foods. Usually, I might get one or two onigiri, a pre-packed chicken breast, and a salad.
- Grocery store bento boxes: I love, love, love Japanese markets. A majority have a hot foods section where you can find an array of yakitori (meat skewers), croquettes, and ready-to-eat foods, including bento boxes. These bento boxes are cheap, filling, and can be healthy. I go for the ones that don’t include a bunch of fried stuff. Usually, I like the grilled salmon, mackerel, or some other fish with rice and a vegetarian mix called hijiki. One pro-tip is that if you go after the dinnertime rush (around 7 p.m.), you can find the same foods at a discounted price.
- Hyakuyen Sushi: This is also known as 100-yen sushi. Each plate is a dollar, but you can choose from a good variety, including salmon and tuna (which they prepare in a variety of ways). Quality for the price is awesome. Uobei and Genki Sushi in Shibuya are popular spots for this.
Vegetarian (pronounced bei-ji-tarian) options exist, and it’s possible to request that dishes be made “vegetarian friendly.” Keep in mind that many of the soup stocks and garnish (like bonito flakes) are made from fish, pork, or chicken. Unfortunately, I’m not too familiar with vegan options, but thankfully, a resource like Happycow.net has your back, even all the way in Japan.
- Nagi Shokudo: This is a restaurant located in the very hip neighborhood of Tokyo called Daikanyama. The vegetarian options range between Japanese, Indian, or Thai style, depending on when you go. Lunch prices are reasonable, but can get packed. Your meal is typically served with three side dishes of your choice, rice, miso soup, and a drink.
- Cafe MUJI: MUJI is a store in Japan, and some of them also have a cafe where you can order food. If you go with a set meal, you get to choose from a variety of side dishes–some of which are vegetarian.
- Udon and soba: Many udon and soba establishments serve non-meat containing udon and soba noodles. You should double check the broth.
- Yakitori: Yaki means grill and tori is chicken. Yakitori is grilled chicken and various chicken parts (and other small dishes) on skewers. Yakitori is the bee’s knees if you are trying to focus more on protein. I opt for the chicken breast, liver, and cartilage and ask them to go light on the sauce.
- Izakaya: Izakaya is essentially a smaller restaurant primarily for drunken merriment. You’re meant to order small eats to go along with your drink, but you don’t have to drink. You can usually find a lot of protein dishes a la carte, including yakitori. While that’s convenient, trying to get full from izakaya food alone could slam you with a final, gigantic bill. Stick with the more unique dishes that you’d like to try and protein stuff.
- Hamburg steak: Pan-fried hamburger patties are a Japanese favorite. If you’re Paleo, these hamburg steaks are made for you. These are typically eaten with a variety of sauces, including curry, tomato sauce, and demi-glace. You’ll find them at places like Saizeriya, Denny’s, and CoCo Curry House.
- Shabu shabu: Imagine a pot of boiling soup, which could be plain water with seaweed, or miso soup, or spicy soup, or anything else those creative Japanese chefs can come up with. Into the pot goes various veggies (usually napa cabbage, daikon, mushrooms, etc.), fish and meat balls, raw meat, and so on. The items take moments to cook because the water is hot as hell. Then you use your chopsticks to grab the food and dip in special sauce, or just eat directly. A lot of these shabu shabu places give a good portion of meat, or if you opt for all-you-can-eat, you can have all. The. Meat. The only thing is, shabu shabu is typically eaten with others, although some places do offer an individual serving and your own pot.
In the end, it’s all about portion control, but since everything looks good, your main challenge lies in keeping yourself from bum-rushing every restaurant, cute cafe, and bakery you pass by.
A sort of mind trick that helps me make better decisions about which foods to eat is to remember that I have more days than the average vacationer to sample a wide variety of delicacies; the food ain’t going anywhere. Second, I ask myself if this is something I would honest-to-god eat if I came across this back home, because oftentimes the context of where you are makes food a lot more appealing than it is.
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