Is Japanese Cuisine a Paleo or Keto diet?
Diets come and go. The Keto diet seems to be the latest sensation in the low-carb/anti-modern food diet boom. But why is that? Why do we always need new dieting fads, and why is it Keto’s turn now?
It’s because our consumption of food is changing rapidly. What goes in our body today is vastly different from 100, 50, or even 20 years ago due to an advanced production/transportation system that supports the food industry. With that change has come an increase food allergies, obesity and diabetes, among other health issues that weren’t part of the plan. New diets emerged as people become aware of “threats” within the ever-changing food market. Food production takes advantage of state-of-the-art technology to “modify” what we eat and make it available in excessive amounts anywhere in the world where there are paying consumers.
The enthusiasm for low-carb, Paleo or Keto diets suggests that we are consuming too much carbohydrate or modified foods that are causing serious health risks. For example, recently I developed an allergy to flour which has caused many different symptoms from headaches to skin rashes. And naturally, in a globalized economy, food-oriented health risks are also global. Traditional cuisines, which are usually considered healthy, are also changing and becoming increasingly unhealthy as they respond to consumer pressures. Japanese cuisine is no exception: you can’t assume it’s a healthier choice if you love its unhealthy aspects, as is the case with all-you-can-eat sushi.
So let’s review the kind of diet provided by Japanese cuisine.
In a basic format, a traditional Japanese meals consists of three or four items, each of which comes as a small to medium portion: a bowl of rice and soup (often miso soup), a dish of protein (often grilled fish), and a couple of side dishes (often simmered vegetables, marinated sea weed, or additional protein). Often called 一汁三菜 (itchiju san sai or bowl of soup, rice with pickles and three dishes), the idea has always been to eat a little bit of everything that is in season. Since vegetables/seafood in season already taste good, Japanese cooking methods focused on minimum processing to take advantage of natural flavors. If you try to describe an authentic Japanese diet, you might say that it was “low-calorie, low-fat”. It could also be considered high in carb ratio because of the use of rice rice, but it is also rich in minerals.
In the example below (which is a small portion because it’s breakfast), you have a bowl of rice, soup (the black bowl with the lid on the right), and fish as the main protein. It’s accompanied by two small sides of tofu (protein from soy beans), one of which is deep-fried. There is another side of simmered vegetables, and a series of bite-sized items that include dried sea weed (such as konbu, hijiki or wakame), very popular items in traditional Japanese dishes that are rich in minerals and “umami” flavors. Although not in this picture, natto (fermented soy beans) is also a popular side dish for breakfast.
You may find some similarities here with the Paleo diet: there is a selection of traditional vegetables, tofu and miso as major protein sources, a modest amount of seafood, not much fat, no dairy, no sugar, and no processed foods.
The reason for this is that the Japanese didn’t adopt many non-Paleo (i.e. “modern”) foods such as flour, dairy products or refined sugar until the “Westernization” period that began at the end of the 19th century. Up until then, the Japanese also avoided meat from domesticated animals and relied on seafood and soy beans as major sources of protein. In the meantime, they developed various ways to process food naturally which were intended to extend the shelf life and condense nutrients – fermentation/drying were the major methods applied to a variety of vegetables and sea foods. Oil has never been a big part of traditional Japanese food – cooking methods such as deep/stir frying became popular over the last few decades.
As long as you control the amount of rice (carb), a traditional Japanese meal is Paleo diet-like and looks healthy.
But the modern version of the Japanese meal – which you would find in your neighborhood restaurant – is quite different from the one illustrated above. First of all, the philosophy of a “little bit of everything” has completely disappeared since you are served with a large amount of rice and a main dish which is often teriyaki chicken (heavily glazed in carb-rich sauce), pork tonkatu or tempura (covered with thick batter and then deep fried). Side dishes would usually include salad and fruit, but it also often includes sushi rolls (additional carb on top of the mound of rice!). Fermented/dried foods are nowhere to be seen because they usually come in small portions and can taste strange if you are not used to them. Lastly, the soup, which is the staple in a traditional setting that balances the entire meal, is significantly downgraded, as miso soup is often diluted and adds no value other than a salty taste.
Here, instead of a low-calorie, low-fat, Paleo-like dish, you have a high calorie, high-carb and high-fat diet with fewer minerals or other types of nutrients.
If the traditional Japanese meal was a Paleo-like diet, you could call its modern counterpart a Keto-like diet. But only because it lacks traditional ingredients (a departure from the Paleo) and uses a substantial amount of fat instead. But even when the emphasis of the Keto diet is an increased fat intake that you can burn off as your energy source instead of carbohydrate, it may not be appropriate to call batter-thick tonkatsu a healthy choice.
The bottom line: modern Japanese meals may still use the format of traditional cuisine, but the ingredients and cooking method may be as “modern” as any other non-Japanese dish. It will be almost impossible to enjoy traditional Paleo-like Japanese meals or make sensible Keto choices in your neighborhood Japanese restaurants, as long as teriyaki, tonkatsu and sushi remain popular items.
In addition to the fact that modern Japanese dishes are overwhelmingly carbohydrate, there aren’t many healthy elements in them.
So the best way is to enjoy Japanese food is at home. Don’t worry if you don’t know how to cook it; there is a good workaround if you are willing to spend money to choose high quality ingredients. Earlier I said that the secret of traditional Japanese cuisine was to eat a little bit of everything in season. And since ingredients in season already taste great, you don’t have to do much to prepare them. Here are ingredients that would work for both a Paleo and Keto diet:
- Reduced amount of (or no) rice
- Vegetables (including dried items)
- Fish and seafood
One of the major “no-cooking-technique-required” traditional Japanese dishes is the hotpot (nabe). You boil water with some broth in a large pot (since you usually eat nabe with a group of people), and drop in whatever ingredients you want to eat. Once they are cooked, you dip them in sauces and eat. It’s easy and you get to choose how much you want to eat. The only caveat: if you want to take in a lot of fat (the Keto diet), nabe may not be a good idea because the fat is removed from the ingredients as they are simmered in a pot.
Shabu shabu is a hot pot that uses very thin-sliced meat (mostly beef but pork is also widely used). You let meat slices simmer in the hot water very briefly, and enjoy them with dipping sauce along with logs of vegetable/tofu.
Shabu-shabu can be served cold; this time with a lot of thinly sliced, raw vegetables. You can enjoy the crunchy texture of a variety of vegetables rather like salad. This is a perfect dish for a hot summer day.
Sushi uses a lot of rice so it can easily become carbohydrate intensive. But if you make it at home, you can control how much rice you eat. It’s okay to reduce the amount drastically as the original idea of sushi was to enjoy the delicate flavors of fresh seafood, not to eat a lot of sweetened rice. Non-rice sushi will be very Keto, although I am not sure how much raw fish you can eat at once. You may want to add additional vegetables and other non-seafood ingredients so that your taste buds don’t get overwhelmed by raw seafood.