Children born in Japan are projected to live the longest, healthiest lives on earth. British children, on the other hand, languish down at only the 23rd healthiest.
But what’s behind the difference?
Studies suggest Japanese genes are not the key to their impressive health and longevity, so clearly, the secret lies in the Japanese lifestyle, with its healthy diet, emphasis on physical activity and a culture that supports healthy choices.
And now those Japanese secrets are being shared with British parents thanks to authors Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle.
The husband-and-wife team have just written the book, Secrets Of The World’s Healthiest Children, which contains practical advice and tips based on interviews with more than 100 doctors, scientists, and panels of Japanese mums.
In it, they explain how the Japanese have a world-class medical system where it’s the norm to attend regular check-ups and screenings, a culture of cleanliness and hygiene, strong community ties, and a culture of stress reduction through ‘contemplative pursuits’.
But the strongest factors underpinning Japan’s good health and longevity are its nutrient-dense diet, and the way the Japanese embrace physical activity much more than many Westerners.
The Japanese eat far more nutrients than people in other developed countries, with higher proportions of fish and plant-based foods, a lower proportion of meat, and fewer calories. Children are served food on smaller plates, their parents use ‘flexible restraint’ rather than demonising certain ‘bad’ foods, and children are encouraged to enjoy treats and snacks only in the right amount and frequency.
As a result, while 7.7 per cent of UK children are obese, Japan has the lowest childhood obesity rate in the world, at 2.9 per cent.
But while copying the Japanese diet and lifestyle sounds good, is it simply too far removed from the British way of life to attempt?
Of course not, insists Moriyama.
The mother-of-one, who was brought up in Tokyo but now lives with Doyle in New York, stresses that ‘turning Japanese’ only takes “tweaks, not massive overhauls”, and promises: “The Japan-style family eating patterns we suggest are a lot easier than you might think - they’re things your family can start doing tonight.”
She says families don’t need to eat Japanese food at all if they don’t want to, although the book contains 33 tasty Japanese recipes, including baked Japanese sweet potato sticks, and vegetable Gyoza dumplings, if they do.
“Don’t give up the foods you love,” she says.
“Just tweak your family lifestyle. We believe that parents should be lifestyle leaders and example-setters for their children, not the food police. Enjoy more fruit, veggies, wholegrains and fish.
“Inspire your child by your own example, by having meals together, trying and enjoying healthier choices together, and trying for an hour of physical activity most days of the week, even something as simple as a power walk.”
And Doyle adds: “We’re talking about a natural, routine lifestyle to enjoy as a family over the long-term, not a shock to the system with forbidden foods and diet rules that are doomed to fail.
“Be your child’s lifestyle authority. If this takes a little extra time and effort, so be it. Your family is worth it.”
Seven healthy Japanese secrets
• Tweak family meals to make them nutrient-dense by including more plant-based foods like fruit and vegetables and wholegrains, as well as fish. Eat less processed food and added sugars and salt.
• Practice flexible restraint, not severe food restriction or food demonisation. Compared with the West, Japanese food culture is closer to the traditional Mediterranean food culture: more relaxed, less stressful, more focused on the ritualised joy of eating delicious, healthy food and much less focused on the ‘shame’ of eating ‘bad’ foods.
• Gently encourage your children to try to enjoy a wide variety of different healthy foods, including many different fruits and vegetables. Research has proven that parents can reduce, or even reverse, their child’s dislike for a food by providing adequate food and portion sizes at mealtimes and promoting social interaction, and themselves as role models for eating behaviours.
• Serve food on modest-sized plates. There appears to be a direct connection between the amount of food placed in front of us and the amount we over-consume. A Japanese food portion is typically served in a moderate size on its own individual small plate. In some cases, it can be 10-20 per cent smaller than the Western counterparts.
• Encourage your family to enjoy a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per day. Japanese children enjoy much higher levels of routine incidental exercise built into their daily lives and radically lower levels of commuting in vehicles and school buses. Nearly all Japanese children walk to school.
• Create a home environment that supports healthy food and lifestyle choices. Eat family meals together regularly, and practice healthy cooking and eating.
• Communicate food and lifestyle habits to your children in an authoritative, rather than authoritarian, style.
Secrets Of The World’s Healthiest Children is published by Piatkus, priced £13.99. Available now.