Things I learned about food in Japan: Eat 30 Different Things Everyday, or not...

Things I learned about food in Japan: Eat 30 Different Things Everyday, or not...

I started my almost 7 year journey in Japan as an English teacher at a large eikaiwa (conversation school) chain. It was one of my first full time jobs and it was tough sometimes, but it benefited me as an easy way to land in Japan, not having to worry about my visa, insurance, transportation, or accommodation. 


Nutritional wisdom gleaned from students of English.

I met a variety of Japanese people while teaching English. Some were retired and used it as something to do and to keep them sharp in their senior years. Some were there because they were incentivized by their employer to study English. I met stay-at-home moms pursuing a hobby, and there were also junior high, high school, and college students studying for exams.


Variety is the Spice of Life

I learned many interesting things from my students, like the nutritional tip to try to eat 30 different things everyday. One student explained this nutritional philosophy to me and it has stuck with me. The idea is that if you eat 30 different foods you will have a healthy, balanced diet without the need to restrict and plan your meals. Just strive to consume as many different foods as possible.

This campaign to consume 30 different foods in a day was introduced by the then Ministry of Health and Welfare (now the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare) in 1985. It quickly became a commonly believed guide for healthy eating and most Japanese people didn’t notice in 2000 when this slogan was suddenly revoked. After 15 years in action, it was concluded that when striving for 30, some people would overeat, so the idea backfired. Oopsie! 

At our house, we do sometimes like to count at dinner time to see how we did that day.


What counts as a food?

It can be an ingredient in a salad or a topping on a pizza, as long as it is not junk food, like sauces, jam, salty or greasy things, sweets, etc. When you start to pay attention and count, it’s harder than you would think to consume 30 different things.

Here’s an example of counting 30 different ingredients

    Breakfast: Yogurt, Granola, and Fruit
    • Yogurt (1), oats (2), almonds (3), Sunflower seeds (4), chia seeds (5), raisins (6), banana (7), blueberries (8), strawberries (9)
      Snack: Crackers and Cheese
      • Crackers (10), Cheese (11)
        Lunch: Hamburger and Side Salad
        • Beef (12), bun (13), pickle (14), onion (15), lettuce (16), tomato (17), baby spinach (18), feta cheese (19), pecans (20), beets (21)
        Snack: Fruit
        • Grapes (22), cookie (not counted)
        Dinner: Okonomiyaki (Japanese cabbage pancake)
        • Cabbage (23), egg (24), corn (25), cheese (26), kimchi (27), shrimp (28), mochi (29), edamame (30)

        It was difficult just to come up with this imaginary scenario, so you get the idea of how it’s a challenging goal to achieve in real life. I found it easier to achieve while living in Japan. In general, the portions of everything are much smaller. You often are served many small items, either in a bento or teishouku (set lunch), or what we would call “family style” where platters of food are set down and everyone enjoys what they like from their own torizawa (literally “taking plate”, a plate the size of a bread plate).

        Japanese vs North American ideas of “Healthy Eating”

        In Japan, the focus of healthy eating is to include many different foods and have a balanced diet. In North America, the idea of excluding something is considered healthy, so terms like “non-fat” and “sugar-free” show up a lot, not prioritizing variety. It’s a very different way of thinking about food and what it means to have a healthy diet.

        Since eating a variety of foods without restrictions is a lot more fun, I hope that you will try it. To make sure that you don’t end up overeating, there is another bit of Japanese advice that is helpful to follow. “Hara hachibu” means literally “stomach 80%”, meaning that you should eat until you feel 80% full. By remembering “hara hachibu” you can enjoy your meal and feel satisfied, without stuffing yourself.