- Kaki Okumura is a Japanese health writer and illustrator who lived in the US until the age of 12.
- Okumura struggled with obesity and tried numerous diet tactics, but none of them worked.
- Her book “Wa: The Art of Balance” will be released in March and focuses on 4 Japanese practices that helped her.
This spoken essay is based on a conversation with Kaki Okumura, the author of “Wa: The Art of Balance”, a book is set to release on March 14. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I remember looking down at the family photo and feeling my heart sink. I couldn’t help it. I was the only one who was overweight.
I’m Japanese, but after growing up in the US until the age of 12, I found myself facing a health challenge that many other Americans face: obesity.
If my family had shared this trouble with me, I might not have felt so alone in my journey.
But my family just didn’t try as hard as I did, probably because most of them lived in Japan – a country that is a leader in longevity and there are many low obesity rate.
My parents were kind and never shamed me for my body, but I still couldn’t help but feel a lot of pressure to change my appearance. So I embarked on a series of diet tactics – I tried everything from calorie restriction and intermittent fasting to low carb. Some worked, with varying degrees of success, but none were sustainable.
At least, not until I moved to Japan.
I always had an image in my mind that people in Japan ate very healthy – that they didn’t eat fried food, meat or ice cream – and most of their meals consisted of rice, fish and steamed vegetables.
But after living there, I began to realize that Japan is just like any other developed country: they eat snacks, they have fast food, and of course they indulge in sweets. It was clear that the Japanese also enjoyed these foods regularly.
So what’s the secret? It is in balance.
Since following these 4 principles, I have never struggled or worried about how I ate.
One of the first things people visiting Japan will say about the food is how small the portions are. When you go out to eat in Japan, you’ll probably be able to finish it in one sitting, while in the US you’ll probably want a takeaway box.
But these moderate portions are one of the main reasons why people in Japan often eat whatever they want – and many without rigorous exercise routines. When you eat in moderation, nothing should be off limits, and you can relax by eating cake on your birthday or steak to celebrate a promotion at work. Consequently, we feel less stressed about food.
I realized that sustainable healthy eating isn’t about willpower or self-discipline, it’s about being able to include the foods we love, in moderation.
When you go to a Japanese restaurant in Japan, you often come across a set meal consisting of rice, miso soup, a protein dish, and some vegetable side dishes. Dishes can range from grilled fish and steamed spinach to deep fried chicken and a salad.
The highlight is not so much the actual dishes, but having such a wide variety of dishes in one meal. This way, people can easily get a variety of nutrients without having too much of anything.
We need carbohydrates, fats, fiber and protein, but instead of overthinking how to incorporate them together, the Japanese style balances out each meal by eating different mini dishes.
Variety also keeps meals interesting, so you don’t feel restricted or deprived of anything while eating everything your body craves.
I’ve found that vegetables are often treated as a necessary evil in the US. There is no shortage of recipes and articles that are worded like “How to make vegetables taste good” or “Vegetable dishes you’ll actually want to eat.”
With the assumption that vegetables don’t taste good, we end up with recipes that will do anything to mask the taste – often with copious amounts of salt, oil or sugar.
In contrast, in Japan, the narrative around vegetables is the opposite: that they are delicious.
It’s common for vegetable dishes to be lightly seasoned, often steamed or even raw, like the shredded cabbage that often comes with tonkatsu, Japanese pork cutlets.
Popular Japanese films, for example Ghibli’s My Neighbor Totoro, have entire scenes of children eating simple, fresh vegetables with gusto.
Once I began to realize that the ingredients we use to cook are delicious, I began to focus on how to enhance and complement these flavors instead of masking them.
Sometimes, the most important ingredient is the one you leave out.
This was the most difficult principle for me, but it was the most important.
When I would overeat, I would feel bad about myself. At times I may feel guilty, ashamed, or weak-willed.
An idea that helped me in such moments was the Japanese expression “kuchisabishii”. It’s a commonly used phrase that translates directly to “lonely mouth,” but it refers to eating out of boredom, or when we eat aimlessly.
But kuchisabishii is less critical in nature than phrases like overeating or binge eating, because it recognizes that like loneliness, eating out of boredom is a very natural emotion.
Instead of sitting in guilt and shame, framing experiences in which we may have eaten a little too much as a forgiving experience, we can recognize and move on with kindness.
Living in Japan has shown me that healthy eating is less about self-discipline or willpower, which are not helpful in building lifelong habits, but more importantly about finding a balance. Food is not just fuel, but can be central to our culture, traditions, identity and values.
I will be publishing a book in March this year called “Wa: The Art of Balance”. “Wa” – the Japanese word used to describe Japanese things – also means harmony and represents the value of seeking balance to live a full life.
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