The traditional Japanese diet is a whole-food-based diet rich in fish, seafood, and plant-based foods with minimal amounts of animal protein, added sugars, and fat.
It’s based on traditional Japanese cuisine, also known as “washoku,” which consists of small dishes of simple, fresh, and seasonal ingredients.
This eating pattern is rich in nutrients and may provide numerous health benefits, including improved weight loss, digestion, longevity, and overall health.
This article explains everything you need to know about the traditional Japanese diet.
What is the traditional Japanese diet?
The traditional Japanese diet consists of minimally processed, seasonal foods served in a variety of small dishes.
This style of eating emphasizes dishes’ natural flavors rather than masking them with sauces or seasonings.
The diet is rich in steamed rice, noodles, fish, tofu, natto, seaweed, and fresh, cooked, or pickled fruits and vegetables but low in added sugars and fats. It may also contain some eggs, dairy, or meat, although these typically make up a small part of the diet.
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The traditional Japanese diet resembles the Okinawan diet, the historical eating pattern of those living on the Japanese island of Okinawa, but includes significantly more rice and fish.
It contrasts with modern Japanese cuisine, which has strong Western and Chinese influences and includes larger amounts of animal protein and processed foods.
Summary: The traditional Japanese diet is rich in minimally processed, fresh, seasonal foods. It contains very small amounts of added sugars, fats, or animal protein and promotes fish, seafood, rice, noodles, seaweed, soy, fruit, and vegetables.
How to follow the traditional Japanese diet
Japanese meals generally consist of a staple food combined with soup, a main dish, and a few sides.
- Staple food: Steamed rice or soba, ramen, or udon noodles
- Soup: Typically a miso soup made with seaweed, shellfish, or tofu and vegetables in a fermented soybean stock — though vegetable or noodle soups are other popular options
- Main dish: Fish, seafood, tofu, or natto with optional small amounts of meat, poultry, or eggs
- Side dishes: Vegetables (raw, steamed, boiled, sautéed, grilled, or pickled), wild plants, seaweed, and raw or pickled fruit
Japanese meals are known for their rich umami flavor, which has been described as the fifth taste — distinct from sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Naturally occurring umami enhances the flavor of vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods in Japanese cuisine.
Visual appeal is another important aspect of the traditional Japanese diet. Dishes tend to be eaten in small bites with chopsticks, as this method is believed to create a rich harmony of flavors.
Hot green tea or cold barley tea are the beverages of choice, while alcoholic drinks like beer and sake are typically reserved for dinner. Snacks are uncommon and seldom eaten.
Summary: Traditional Japanese meals consist of steamed rice or noodles served with a warm soup, seafood- or soy-based main dish, and a few sides. Naturally occurring umami is used to enhance the flavor of foods.
Potential health benefits of the traditional Japanese diet
The traditional Japanese diet is linked to an array of health benefits.
Rich in nutrients and beneficial compounds
The traditional Japanese diet is naturally rich in various nutrients, including fiber, calcium, potassium, magnesium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and E.
Vegetables contribute to the nutrient density of this diet and are often cooked in dashi, a dried fish and sea vegetable-based stock. This reduces their volume and enhances their flavor, making it easier to eat large amounts.
The diet also offers good amounts of seaweed and green tea. Both are great sources of antioxidants, which are beneficial compounds that protect your body against cellular damage and disease.
What’s more, the many fish- and seaweed-based dishes included in this diet provide long-chain omega-3 fats, which promote brain, eye, and heart health.
May improve your digestion
Seaweed, soybeans, fruits, and vegetables are naturally rich in fiber, a nutrient that aids your digestion.
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Insoluble fiber moves food through your gut and adds bulk to stool, reducing your risk of constipation.
These foods also contain soluble fiber, which feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut and helps reduce the space available for harmful bacteria to multiply.
When gut bacteria feed on soluble fiber, they produce short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), which may reduce inflammation and symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), Crohn’s disease, and ulcerative colitis.
Moreover, the pickled fruits and vegetables commonly eaten on this diet are a great source of probiotics. These beneficial bacteria promote gut health and reduce digestive symptoms like gas, bloating, constipation, and diarrhea.
May promote a healthy weight
The traditional Japanese diet is rich in vegetables, has small portion sizes, and is naturally low in added sugar and fat. These factors all contribute to a low-calorie count.
In addition, Japanese culture encourages eating until only 80% full. This practice deters overeating and may contribute to the calorie deficit needed to lose weight.
Furthermore, research shows that the fiber-rich vegetables, soy foods, and soups typical of the traditional Japanese diet may help reduce appetite and boost fullness, thus promoting weight control.
Evidence also suggests that alternating between dishes, as is common during traditional Japanese meals, may reduce the total amount of food eaten per meal.
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May protect against chronic diseases
The traditional Japanese diet may safeguard against conditions like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
It’s naturally rich in fish, seaweed, green tea, soy, fruits, and vegetables but low in added sugar, fat, and animal protein — all factors believed to protect against heart disease.
Japanese people’s risk of heart disease remains unexpectedly low despite their high salt intake, which typically raises heart disease risk.
What’s more, in a 6-week study in 33 men following the traditional Japanese diet, 91% experienced significant reductions in risk factors for type 2 diabetes, including excess weight and high LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
Plus, the high green tea intake encouraged on this diet may protect against Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and certain types of cancer.
May help you live longer
Japan has one of the world’s highest life expectancies, which many experts attribute to the traditional Japanese diet.
The Japanese island of Okinawa is considered a Blue Zone, which is a region with extremely high longevity. Keep in mind that the Okinawa diet focuses heavily on sweet potatoes and features less rice and fish than the traditional Japanese diet.
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In a 15-year study in over 75,000 Japanese people, those who closely followed the traditional Japanese diet experienced up to a 15% lower risk of premature death compared with those eating a Westernized diet.
Experts link this increased lifespan to the traditional Japanese diet’s emphasis on whole, minimally processed foods, as well as its low added fat and sugar content.
Summary: The traditional Japanese diet is rich in nutrients and may aid digestion, weight loss, and longevity. It may also reduce your risk of chronic illnesses.
Foods to eat
The traditional Japanese diet is rich in the following foods:
- Fish and seafood. All types of fish and seafood can be included. These can be steamed, baked, grilled, or raw — as is the case with sushi and sashimi.
- Soyfoods. The most common are edamame, tofu, miso, soy sauce, tamari, and natto.
- Fruit and vegetables. Usually, fruits are eaten raw or pickled while vegetables are steamed, sautéed, pickled, simmered in broth, or added to soups.
- Seaweed. Sea vegetables are a big part of the traditional Japanese diet. They’re usually eaten raw or dried.
- Tempura. This light dough is made by mixing wheat flour with iced or sparkling water. It serves as a batter for deep-fried seafood and vegetables.
- Rice or noodles. Steamed rice is a staple in a traditional Japanese diet. Other popular options include soba, ramen, or udon noodles served chilled or in a hot broth.
- Beverages. Hot green tea and cold barley tea are the main beverages, though beer and sake may be served with dinner.
Small amounts of red meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy may also be included. However, these foods don’t comprise a large part of the traditional Japanese diet.
Summary: The traditional Japanese diet promotes whole or minimally processed foods — primarily fish, seafood, seaweed, rice, soy, fruit, and vegetables alongside small amounts of other animal products.
Foods to limit or avoid
The traditional Japanese diet minimizes the following foods:
- Dairy: Butter, milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, etc.
- Red meat and poultry: Beef, pork, chicken, duck, etc.
- Eggs: Boiled, fried, as an omelet, etc.
- Excess fats, oils, and sauces: Margarine, cooking oils, dressings, fat-rich sauces, etc.
- Baked goods: Bread, pita, tortillas, croissants, pie, brownies, muffins, etc.
- Processed or sugary foods: Breakfast cereals, granola bars, candy, soft drinks, etc.
Moreover, snacks are uncommon on this diet, which inherently limits popular snack foods like chips, popcorn, trail mix, and crackers.
Desserts may be included in the traditional Japanese diet — but they rely on natural ingredients, such as fruit, matcha, or red bean paste, rather than added sugars.
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Summary: The traditional Japanese diet excludes snacks and is naturally low in dairy, red meat, poultry, baked goods, and sugary or processed foods.
Here’s a typical 3-day menu for the traditional Japanese diet:
- Breakfast: Miso soup, steamed rice, natto, and seaweed salad
- Lunch: Soba noodles in a dashi-based broth, grilled tuna, kale salad, and boiled vegetables
- Dinner: Udon noodle soup, fish cakes, edamame, and vegetables marinated in vinegar
- Breakfast: Miso soup, steamed rice, an omelet, dried trout, and pickled fruit
- Lunch: Clam soup, rice balls wrapped in seaweed, marinated tofu, and a cooked-vegetable salad
- Dinner: Miso soup, sushi, seaweed salad, edamame, and pickled ginger
- Breakfast: Udon-noodle soup, a boiled egg, shrimp, and pickled vegetables
- Lunch: Shiitake-mushroom soup, rice cakes, seared scallops, and steamed vegetables
- Dinner: Miso soup, steamed rice, vegetable tempura, and salmon or tuna sashimi
Summary: The traditional Japanese diet combines simple soups, steamed rice or noodles, fish, seafood, tofu or natto, and a variety of minimally processed sides.
The traditional Japanese diet focuses on whole, minimally processed, nutrient-rich, seasonal foods.
It’s particularly rich in seafood, vegetables, and fruit, and limits meat, dairy, and snacks.
It may improve digestion, aid weight management, help you live longer, and protect against various diseases.
If you want to learn more about the traditional Japanese diet, you can find many books on the topic. When browsing, look for books that focus on whole foods and don’t provide Westernized recipes.
Suggested read: Is ketchup vegan?Last updated on September 15, 2021, and last reviewed by an expert on September 12, 2021.