Diet food for thought

2007-12-28

Be it for weight loss or extra health benefits, diet fads abound in Japan where supersize servings are also all the rage - from a buffet of miracle foods to lucrative low-calorie-cuisine campaigns. But experts say forgoing that extra helping of hype and some common sense are the real keys to getting fit and trim.

Let's face it, a nation where television endlessly streams a kind of food-pornography depicting seductive dishes, mouth-cramming close-ups and carnal cries of "oishi!" must have a food fetish. There are the myriads of diet fads spurred by thinly veiled infomercials for the latest alleged health benefit of a local food or drink. Add in the new mega-size-serving and low-calorie-cola crazes (courtesy of McDonald's, Pepsi and Coca-Cola) and it's clear that Japan's unique brand of gastronomy can confound even the most earnest dieter.

Consider the public shock last year over the revelation that natto and miso soup won't make you slim, lettuce doesn't stop insomnia and wasabi doesn't retard aging as the popular variety show "Hakkutsu! Aruaru Daijiten II (Encyclopedia of Living II)" had lied. Soon media was noting, perhaps ironically, other fads they had likely helped spark: pickled soybeans in 1988, cocoa in 1996, bittern (treated sea water) in 2002, and agar (red alga extract) in 2005 - all purported to have some near-supernatural benefit.

Since these products often fly off the shelves in the wake of such hype, it's easy to write it off as unscrupulous advertising to a tolerant - if not gullible - public. But the damage goes much deeper, according to Matsulico (Matsuriko) Natsume, author of "How I Lost Weight After I Stopped Dieting" (2006) and "The Best Diet is No Diet" (1999).

"Diet fads are a result of marketing strategies by mass media to control people's image of a beautiful body," says Natsume, who began debunking conventional dieting after winning a 20-year bout with diet dependency and eating disorders. "They send so many images of skinny women that many women believe, "I'm valueless if I'm not slim." It hides the fact that our bodies have the capacity to become slim naturally, and make us believe that we'll never get slim without an external force such as diet products."

In her most recent book, also slated for English publication, Natsume argues that contrary to what typical dieters believe, your appetite is your friend: "The correct way to diet is to affirm the appetite. If you satisfy your physical wants correctly, your metabolism works actively and your figure will gradually become well-proportioned. The appetite is an excellent barometer for what kind and how much nutrition your body needs. I stopped doing very stressful diet methods and ate to comply with my natural appetite and I became slim." For much of the nation, however, attitudes about food and eating remain entrenched.

"Food faddism," Gunma University Professor Kuniko Takahashi writes in the Shukan Economist, is due to focusing too much on food as the cause of good or bad health. It leads to perpetual anxiety fed by ever-present media hype. Having monitored this hype and refuted such claims, Takahashi concludes Japan is rife with the ingredients of food faddism: A bewildering overabundance of food; a near obsessive concern for health, compounded by a graying majority; an innate inability to question media reports; and unfounded fears about food. "The fact is, the government and the food industry have failed to gain the trust of consumers," she writes. But that's not to say the voice of government doesn't carry weight.

Since a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare report in 2006 shocked the nation with news that more than 19 million people show some sign of the metabolic syndrome, many of today's diet-food fads involve products purporting to address some aspect of it. Metabolic syndrome refers either to abdominal obesity; high blood pressure, insulin or cholesterol; or a combination of these. It's believed to be an indicator of health problems to come and is far more prevalent in men.

Whether, as some suggest, the ministry hoped the news would goad an aging nation poised to overload its national health care system toward healthier living is unclear. But it did capture the attention of an already health - and food-obsessed public. Metabolic syndrome is virtually a household name in Japan, compared with the United States where 50 million have it and few would know what to call it. It may just be why dieting here is increasingly no longer just a women's thing.

The rare dieting book for men, "Don't Think You Are Obese Forever," had sold an unprecedented 340,000 copies by October and was being reprinted weekly to keep up with demand, reports J-Cast News. Written by Toshio Okada, a visiting professor at Osaka University of Arts famed for slimming from 117 kilograms to 67 kg in a year, it forgoes traditional dieting for eating awareness by simply monitoring consumption. Online social networking services have been abuzz with the popular method.

"The male body, without periods or childbirth, can loose weight by reducing consumption more easily than the female body," says Natsume. She adds that Okada not only plugs her book "How I Lost Weight After I Stopped Dieting" but applied some of its principles to maintain his own recovered figure. (Okada could not be reached for comment.) Either way, she insists, traditional dieting and diet fads offer little if anything for health-conscious individuals - or a food-obsessive society.

"Has the number of slim people in the United States increased with the number of people dieting?" Natsume asks. "No. What we do know is that the umber of obese people and people with anorexia or bulimia has increased."

To learn more about Matsulico Natsume's books in Japanese visit: http://www15.ocn.ne.jp/~antidiet/, in English: http://www.trannet-japan.com/ep/tjc_ExecSearch.asp?at=Natsume,%20Matsuriko. Info on Toshio Okada's book is at: http://en.j-cast.com/2007/11/05012923.html

Looking for tips on the nutritional value Japanese cuisine has to offer? See: http://www.fitnessjp.com/026_37_what%5C%27s+that+you%5C%27re+eating%3F. Our Fitness Doctor also has some advice dining out smart at: http://www.fitnessjp.com/027_24_dining+out+smart



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