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NIPPONIA No.29 June 15, 2004

Special Feature*
The Key to a Long Life Is What You Eat
One reason why life spans are long in Japan is the food. The traditional diet is basically a recipe for long life. What types of food and what combinations of ingredients help people live longer? Here we examine Japanese traditional cuisine to discover some secrets to extending life.
Text and food preparation by Nagayama Hisao
food culture historian and lecturer at Seibu Bunri University of Hospitality
Photos by Uchida Tamotsu
The basics: rice, one soup, three side dishes
Front left: Rice, Japan's staple food, contains oligosaccharide (good for the intestines) and gamma amino butyric acid (helps stabilize blood pressure). If you cook the rice with foxtail mullet, its ample B vitamins and zinc will raise the nutritional value.
Center left: Soybeans simmered with carrots and kombu seaweed, all seasoned with soy sauce and sweetened with sugar. The many elderly in rural Japan eat lots of soybeans.
Rear left: Simmered root vegetables (taro potatoes, daikon radish, carrot, burdock root). Root vegetables have plenty of nutrients and dietary fiber. Cutting the vegetables fairly large keeps the fibers long and makes you chew well. Chewing a lot stimulates brain cells.
Rear right: Sashimi (raw fish or shellfish) is dipped in soy sauce before eating. Because the fish is not cooked, it retains more nutrients. The bowl in the photo contains tuna, sea bream and squid. Tuna meat from the belly, called toro, is especially high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), whih helps prevent dementia.
Center: Nuka-zuke, vegetables pickled in a fermented paste of rice bran, salt and water. Rice bran contains body-strengthening Vitamins B1 and E, and the yeast fungus and lactic acid bacteria that develop during the fermentation process improve digestion.
Front right: Miso soup, standard fare at the Japanese table. It is made by dissolving miso bean paste in a stock made from dried bonito shavings or other ingredients.
Tofu and wakame seaweed go well with the soup, and are a favorite combination offering high-quality protein and calcium.

Food for healthy living, decade after decade
The Japanese have the longest life expectancy in the world, averaging 78 years for men and 85 for women. The number of centenarians rose to 20,561 in 2003, the first year there were more than 20,000. The number increases yearly, and is sure to increase in 2004 as well.
Diet is obviously related to health, so there can be no doubt that the food the Japanese have eaten over the years is an important factor promoting their long life spans. The traditional Japanese diet, part of the nation's culture since ancient times, is attracting more and more favorable attention abroad, especially in the West. Eating Japanese style is good for the health and provides access to many nutrients that retard cell aging. Thanks to their diet, the Japanese have slowed the aging process more than any other people on earth. Many appear remarkably young for their age, however old they may be.

The basics: rice, one soup, three side dishes
The Japanese diet is based on what we call ichi ju san sai—three side dishes eaten with miso soup and the staple food, which is rice boiled in plain water. The three side dishes consist of one main and two lesser dishes. This ichi ju san sai pattern was developed by the military class in the Muromachi period (14th to 16th centuries), and became the standard that continues to this day.
The main side dish has non-vegetable protein, often fish. The fish might be served raw, as in sashimi, or it might be simmered or grilled using any number of recipes. One of the two lesser side dishes, generally simmered and seasoned, may feature taro potatoes, daikon radish, carrots, burdock root, or kombu seaweed. The other lesser dish may include natto (fermented soybeans), tofu, cooked beans, boiled vegetables steeped in a soy-sauce-flavored broth, or ingredients seasoned in sweetened vinegar. The meal always comes with pickles—perhaps a vegetable pickled in a rice-bran paste, or umeboshi, a pickled Japanese apricot.
The ingredients generally depend on the season. The Japanese are fond of eating things in season because food is tastiest when fresh, and because the taste can be brought out without following some complicated recipe. When fresh, food does not need rich seasonings or a long cooking time, and most of the health-giving vitamins and nutrients are retained. Japanese cuisine is simple to prepare and high in natural nutrients.
What are the main life-extending nutrients in Japanese food?


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