For someone who played sports throughout the majority of her life, I admit I was never good at portion control or exercising for weight loss. My teammates were extremely lean while I looked — as my brother would say — chonky.
I didn’t have the best relationship with my body so I wanted to slim down and feel better about it, but I couldn’t find anything in the U.S that I felt like I could realistically accomplish. To be honest, the fitness culture in this country scares me. I knew I didn’t want to drink Kombucha every day or attend expensive SoulCycle classes for the rest of my life.
When I lived in Japan for a couple of years, I was shocked by the not-so-intense fitness culture. None of my peers went to the gym, drank protein smoothies, or ate granola bars for meals. Throughout my time learning about their culture, I realized that the health culture in Japan gravitates towards prevention rather than cure, which is different from the US philosophy.
Rather than overworking the body to compensate for the overconsumption of high-calorie food, Japanese people eat balanced meals and walk miles for commute every day. Not many people go to the gym or buy expensive products to sustain their healthy lifestyle because their daily routine is already healthy.
I’m going to introduce 4 Japanese dieting tricks I’ve picked up while living with my family in Japan for a few years. These were all so easy to implement in my day-to-day routine, and they’ve helped me lose 20 pounds in a year without doing anything rigorous that my peers in the U.S were doing. I also believe these tricks will be helpful for those who can’t exercise due to physical injuries or those who find themselves constantly thinking: “I never have time in my day to do something more.”
1. Relax in a half-body bath every other day
A half-body bath may sound silly, but it’s essentially taking a bath while immersing only half of our bodies. The key is to take a relatively longer and warmer bath, which helps speed up our metabolism. The recommended bath time is typically 20~30 minutes — anything longer than that can burden your body and have counter effects.
A long bath of 20~30 minutes is a similar concept to a spa, which is also a large part of Eastern culture. A longer bath usually makes me start sweating after 5~10 minutes into the process, and similar to a spa, it can start to feel uncomfortable. To make this easier, I take my phone or a book to read to the bathtub so the 30 minutes don’t feel too distressing. Taking a half-body bath has become my favorite part of the day when I get to relax and spend time alone.
Americans tend to prefer showering over bathing, but the opposite is true in Japan. I used to shower every day, but I switched to bathing a few times a week and showering the other days. The trick is to take a bath in 100~106 degrees Fahrenheit water as opposed to the 92-degree bath that is recommended in the U.S.
I immerse half of my body until the water level sits right below my chest. A full-body bath in hot water feels constricting on my lungs and heart, but a half-body bath is comfortable enough to take for half an hour, if not less.
If the temperature goes down during the duration of the bath, I like to add some more hot water to bring the temperature back up to the stated range. Japanese bathtubs typically come with a thermometer that allows me to easily set the water temperature. In the U.S where this isn’t the case, I fill up the bath then add hot or cold water to adjust the temperature.
You may ask, why is this a common dieting technique in Japan? Well, taking a half-body bath makes it easier to stay in the bath longer while the hot temperature of the water heats up the body and accelerates the calorie-burning process. The total calories burned per bath are not high enough to be effective for weight loss on their own, but doing it consistently (like every other day of the week) will speed up the metabolism, improve the skin, and get rid of bloatedness. I’ve found it a great way to detox my body and experienced gradual weight loss after a couple of weeks of consistently trying out this method.
When I first started taking half-body baths, all the sweating made me feel uncomfortable and dehydrated. Drinking lots of water before doing this is important to stay hydrated and avoid passing out in the bathtub!
2. Replace rice or spaghetti with konjac
I learned this trick from my Japanese mom who highly encouraged me to eat konjac, also called yam cake. She herself lost over 15 pounds from integrating konjac in two of her meals per day, which she started doing as she could not exercise due to her asthma. This diet has boosted her confidence as she started to feel self-conscious of her stomach that came with age. To this day, my 52-year-old mom is often mistaken to be in her early 40’s, and she attributes it entirely to her konjac diet.
Konjac tastes pretty much like nothing or just a little bit salty, so it’s easy to cook konjac with pretty much anything as a substitute for rice or wheat noodles and it’ll take on the flavor of whatever you cook with.
When I cook rice, I mix the rice grains with konjac and cook it together in a rice cooker. This has helped me easily integrate konjac into my daily diet. Another option would be to buy konjac rice, which is konjac noodles in the form of rice. Konjac rice is made of 97% water and 3% fiber, bringing down my daily carb consumption.
Konjac is also a great alternative to wheat noodles, which are high in carbohydrates and eventually get converted to sugar in the body. My personal favorite is Shirataki noodles containing very low carbs and are rich in glucomannan fiber. Glucomannan is recognized as an effective solution for patients with diabetes or high cholesterol.
Konjac is widely used in the Eastern world for weight loss and cholesterol management. The reason is that it is rich in water-soluble fiber that helps lower sugar levels. Konjac also tends to expand in the stomach, slow down the speed at which the digestive system empties, and keep me fuller for longer. This is similar to the feeling of eating vegetables as they also tend to help us gain the satisfaction of feeling full while also not increasing sugar and calorie intake. Konjac is inexpensive too ($1.69 for 255 grams), which means I can skip out on all the expensive Sweetgreen meals.
3. Chew your food more, almost excessively
This trick is most effective for people who tend to binge eat or struggle with portion control. Chewing a lot helps the feeling of “full” last longer.
Chewing food promotes digestion in a timely manner. If we swallow our food without chewing it properly, there are two side effects: 1) The stomach has a difficult time digesting food, and 2) The saliva cannot break down the food. Saliva has amylase and lipase that help break down food and, on top of that, has an antibacterial effect. Chewing food almost excessively lets our saliva do its job, which can be extremely powerful.
In addition, chewing alone releases histamine to the brain that tricks it into thinking that we’re full. It’s a simple mind trick, but I found myself eating smaller portions when I remind myself to keep chewing. The trick is to chew at least 30 times for each bite of food, alternating between chewing on the right and left sides of your mouth. We tend to have a “favorite” side to chew on, but chewing with only one side is tougher on your jaw and is said to cause an imbalanced body.
In Japan, it’s a common understanding that there are two types of bodies: 1) a healthy body that can lose weight, and 2) an imbalanced body that is more resistant to weight loss. The first step to weight loss is building a body that can easily lose weight. To do this, Japanese people speed up their metabolism by taking half-body baths and chewing at least 30 times.
4. Eat vegetables first
This is ingrained in Japanese culture, in which your favorite aunties will insist that you eat your vegetables before consuming other foods. Japanese meals traditionally come in a healthy balance of grains, protein, and vegetables, and Japanese people always start tackling their vegetables before indulging in the protein and grains.
This trick is partially psychological, as eating vegetables first makes us feel fuller before eating other foods. Again, this helped me a lot with portion control. Vegetables also have a lot of fiber, which is known to help with digestion.
That’s not why Japanese people eat vegetables first, though. They actually eat vegetables first because they say there is a strong correlation between insulin and weight loss. My Japanese mom explained it to me like this:
When the body absorbs sugar from the food that we eat, the sugar level spikes up. Then the sugar that we consume gets converted into energy, helping us get tasks done and go about our day-to-day. Then our pancreas releases insulin into our bodies.
Insulin plays a role in bringing down sugar levels and turning the sugar that hasn’t been converted to energy, into fat. In other words, if the sugar level spikes too quickly and too much insulin is released, it becomes easier for our bodies to build up fat. That’s why when we eat rice, bread, or snacks when we’re on an empty stomach, our sugar levels rise up too quickly and an abundance of insulin is pushed out into our bodies.
This trick works because eating vegetables on an empty stomach, before eating other foods, prevents the sugar level from spiking up and insulin from being mass released. Japanese people say that eating vegetables first helps create a body that is more resistant to weight gain.
Some find it easier to lose weight while others find it more difficult. This was an interesting argument to me because I never thought about how people have different body types. While there are multiple explanations for this, Japanese people say that our habits dictate whether we have a body that is “easy to lose weight” versus the opposite.
Doing yoga, having a good posture, and walking often— these Eastern health habits all play a part in building a body that can lose weight.