Want your children to live the longest and healthiest life possible? Move to Japan! A study reported in The Lancet shows that children born in Japan today enjoy the highest life expectancy in the world.
According to the study, Japanese boys and girls can expect to live to age 73 without any major illness or disability, with an overall life expectancy well into the 80s. The U.S. pales in comparison (and doesn’t even reach the top 10 globally), with kids in 2013 forecasted to be healthy until age 65 and live until they’re 76.
How do the Japanese do it? Naomi Moriyama and her husband, William Doyle, who are parents and the authors of Secrets of the World’s Healthiest Children: Why Japanese Children Have the Longest, Healthiest Lives—And How Yours Can Too, studied families and kids in Japanese society and found that good nutrition, sensible schedules, healthy habits, and moderate exercise are the keys to a lifetime of good health.
But how does a family accomplish these things day to day? Read on to learn how the Japanese do it and how you can put some of their healthy-habit skills to work in your home.
1. Be the boss over your kid’s health and wellness.
As parents, we sometimes tiptoe around sensitive subjects out of fear that we’ll push too hard or that our kids will rebel. Moriyama found that eating nutritious, delicious foods at home as a family was a strong predictor of children developing healthy eating habits later in life.
What does this mean? The more you introduce your kids to healthy foods and have fun doing it, the more your kids will want to do it on their own. The key is to make it an engaging family activity. Studies have shown that forcing children to eat only particular things and finish everything on their plates is counterproductive, because they will end up associating mealtime with discomfort and fear.
Psychologists have found that when parents are working toward establishing healthy habits for their children (and other good habits as well) an approach that’s known as authoritative parenting works the best. This concept was pioneered in the 1960s and is characterized by a parent establishing guidelines and rules that are expected to be followed.
But they listen and respond to kids questions and concerns and are nurturing and strategic in their approach to discipline. Parents are assertive but not restrictive. They apply firm control, but it’s justified by rational explanation.
As it applies to a healthy lifestyle, nothing is forbidden or off limits, and choices abound—along with the reasoning behind them. In Japanese culture, parents model healthy eating and don’t overreact when a kid doesn’t want to eat a new food, prefers something else, or isn’t interested in finishing their entire meal.
2. Encourage your child to explore new foods.
Kids can be fickle, yet they also can be daring. Additionally, their likes and dislikes will change over time. The earlier a child is exposed to a variety of food choices, the more likely they will be receptive to different foods that they’re introduced to.
Experts agree that the more diverse a child’s palate, the healthier their overall health will be. Studies have shown that when a child relies only on a limited number of food choices, they aren’t exposed to a variety of healthy nutrients, and allergies and intolerances can also develop.
The best way to try to get your kids to eat new foods is to make it fun and do it without pressure. Try offering a new item every week and keep an open mind. It may even be helpful to let them search the internet and choose new foods or recipes that they’d like to try.
3. Rebalance your plate the Japanese way.
Super Size Me was not just a popular movie about obesity in the U.S., but it also depicted how the average serving size of meals has grown over the past 20 years. Japanese families control their family’s meal portion sizes by using smaller plates.
The Family Eating Laboratory at the Temple University Center for Obesity Research and Education discovered that children don’t normally serve themselves huge portions when left on their own—and they chose even smaller portion sizes when the size of the plate was smaller.
4. Choose foods that are high in nutrition, lower in calories, and more satisfying.
When you think about the typical Japanese-style meal, it frequently consists of a small bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup, and three small side dishes. These are usually fish, meat or tofu, and two vegetables.
All meals are minimally processed, naturally derived, and well balanced. They are made from high quality ingredients and are both filling and tasty. You don’t have to feed your kids sushi and edamame for them to be healthy, but choosing more plant-based meals and “cleaner” foods will keep them satisfied, fuller longer, and healthier overall.
One option may be to include more of that Japanese staple, rice. The Japanese rely on this minimally processed carbohydrate to balance out their meals in a healthy way. Rice is offered instead of the U.S. staple—wheat, which tends to be less filling and less nutritious.
Nothing is taboo at the Japanese table, but you don’t often see highly processed foods, deep fried foods, or trans fat–laden options.
5. Make lunch a big deal.
Moriyama explains that Japanese school lunch programs are well thought out and planned in order to offer the most nutritious meals possible. Starting young, all children are served a lunch that is made from locally grown foods and is prepared daily in the cafeteria.
Unhealthy options aren’t offered, and this helps children learn the type of food that is nutritious and appropriate for them. Kids also help plan, prepare, and serve the lunches. They study nutrition, visit local farms, receive cooking instruction, and learn about table manners.
This combination teaches them how to choose wisely for themselves and gives them the knowledge they need to be in charge of their bodies and health. Even though most schools in the U.S. don’t have these types of programs for students’ lunch, the school program can help to guide American parents in choosing the right breakfasts and dinners for their kids.
6. Get your child moving more.
In Japan, physical activity is built into the lives of children from a very early age—98.3 percent of children walk or bike to and from school, which helps them to get the recommended 60 minutes a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Moriyama explains that this practice sets up a lifelong habit of regular exercise. In Japan, it’s just assumed that you get up and start walking; traveling by car is typically not an option.
The World Health Organization reports that daily physical activity for kids not only keeps their weight at a healthy number, but it also makes the entire body healthier by supporting the development of strong bones and muscles, improving the cardiovascular system, helping memory and concentration, and developing the skills to deal with mental health issues such as fear, anxiety, and depression.
Even if your kids don’t have the option of walking to school, the take-away message of Japanese society is to try to make daily physical activity a habit. Whether it’s an after-school basketball game or an after-dinner walk, exercise habits established early on will stay with your kids into adulthood.