This is something I’ve wanted to write about generally for a while. Coming back to Australia, the one thing I always notice is just how big people are compared to Japan. I’m not judging as for a decent portion of my life I’ve been bigger than ideal. But looking at the diet of even generally healthy people, it isn’t hard to see why. The portions for a start are ridiculously large when going out. I hate wasting food so I’ve found myself torn between this and being overly full a few times now. The other problem is of course the amount of sugar people consume, especially with soft-drinks. A diet like that and no amount of time at the gym will protect you and even those with a good metabolism are likely to push their luck.
The other problem starts younger and has a lot to do with the habits people develop when they are young. When I was a child, I got a sandwich for lunch and a muesli bar and some fruit for recess. Over time, this changed to more salty, processed choices for recess and eventually even for lunch. By the time my younger brothers were in school, they weren’t eating fruit or even sandwiches at all. Once you get into this habit, it is hard to get out of it. Many kids won’t get big because of this diet while they’re young but if they maintain the habit, they are likely to find themselves overweight in early adulthood.
Japan in contrast has very low obesity and most children and adults are slim. Metabolism certainly plays a part but it is far from the only reason. A healthy diet is certainly one reason but then again, Japanese people have access to a lot of the worst of the west. There are fried foods, chocolate, ice cream and soft drink available in every convenience store. And there are a lot of convenience stores. Japanese also tend to fry their food (not deep fry) so they use a lot of oil. Another factor, relate to what I mentioned above is that restaurant portions tend to be a lot smaller. Although binge drinking is certainly less of a problem, Japanese do love a drink and both men and women drink plenty of carbonated alcoholic drinks.
There is more to it than that though and one thing relates back to what happens when they are growing up. The vast majority of Japanese children have a set lunch growing up that is set by a nutritionist. I’ve eaten these lunches myself many times and they are generally quite balanced. Before you think this explains it, I’d remind you that quite a few western countries also have school lunches and still have a problem with obesity. The difference I think is that the lunches are on the whole, healthier but it isn’t just that. The children are expected to eat every meal, whether or not they like the meal. Complaining might help them at home, but not at school. They must finish their food.
The end result is they learn discipline and to eat food that they may not like because it is healthy. This forced habit becomes a general habit broken only perhaps during college years. They get used to drinking tea and eating rice and not cakes and cola.
I carry this policy out myself and make children finish their food. If they don’t finish what they are given, they do not play. This wasn’t something I originally did but that came with the culture of the working environment. I wasn’t previously responsible for what children did with their food. Having children myself, I can see how important it is though.
I came into conflict with someone because of this because their child wasn’t finishing their school lunch. They not only wanted their child to be exempt from this but wanted the policy changed for all. I didn’t relent and simply told them they’d have to send lunch the child would eat rather than eating the lunch ordered by the school. This seemed perfectly reasonable to me.
I received an email during this time directing me to the Victorian kindergarten policies in Australia and also a similar policy from Canada. The image below is reproduced from this PDF document.
The other website I was linked to in Canada has this written:
“Don’t force-feed. Let your kids decide how much they want to eat.”
In my opinion, the advice given by both these sites is totally wrong. It is disastrously wrong. If it is right then Japan should have major problems with obesity right into adulthood. I should have eating problems as my parents expected me to finish my food when I was a child and if I didn’t I would miss out on dessert or receive another punishment. As written in the title, this comes back to the child-first education but also simply because of the carelessness of many parents.
A big problem not mentioned is just how much food will get wasted with policies like this. One reason Japan may have remained disciplined about this is because many Japanese still living have some recollection of what it is like to lack food following World War II. This is something that I and indeed, very few people have experienced. Children are often instructed to eat every grain of rice in their bowel or plate. So it isn’t just a problem of waste but of appreciating what you have.
Another thing missing is that making children eat a set amount, at set times rather than cause overeating will encourage them to fill their stomachs with what’s necessary and avoid snacking and other bad habits as a result. If a child is made to fill themselves up on vegetables and grains then they are unlikely to crave snacks at a later time. And when they aren’t craving snacks they aren’t craving even more as a result of the addictive additives within. This gives children both a balanced diet and helps them with self-discipline.
For it to be true that having children finish what they are given will cause overeating, it should also be true that Japan has this problem. Not only do they not but there obesity rate is less than half of the nearest European country according to this data which I see no reason to doubt.
The obesity rate for Japan is 3.2%, for Canada 14.3% and for Australia, 21.7%. This is from 2003 so if anything the numbers are probably higher now. I doubt they’ve changed much in Japan though. And Japan has all the junk-food that the west has available close by. And as a personal example, the people I usually see who are overweight in Japan have the bad habit of buying this food rather than packing their own lunch. Genetics alone do not account for the difference.
So do you want to be healthier and slimmer? Do you want your children to grow up with good habits? If so, provide balanced and healthy meals and make them eat it. Avoid snacking and soft drink. This isn’t secret knowledge but even I’d forgotten it for a time.