What's that you're eating?


Whatエs that youエre eating ?
Whats that youre eating ?

Taking up your chopsticks to dig into the local cuisine can be an enigmatic exercise in faith. Nutritionist and health consultant Erica Angyal serves up insights on the good and bad common Japanese foods have to offer. A native of Sidney, Australia, Angyal, 36, is the official nutritionist to Miss Universe Japan, founder of Elixa brand herbal teas and writes on health and nutrition for magazines and newspapers. Her book "Gorgeous Skin in 30 Days" outlines a holistic nutritional plan for healthy skin.

Q: Nutritionally, how would you describe foods typically available in Japan?

A: Compared to typical Western cooking, Japanese food features much smaller portions, more fresh vegetables and fruit, rice, soy, and fish - and less calories, refined sugars, red meat, trans-fats and saturated fats. Traditional Japanese food is really healthy, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to find homemade traditional food.

The traditional Japanese diet isn't perfect though. It's far too high in sodium, from salty foods like pickled vegetables, soy sauce, and miso soup. Also, Japanese tend to use a lot of MSG (monosodium glutamate) in their cooking - called Ajinomoto in Japan - and it can be problematic for some people causing anything from flushing, sweating, headaches, chest pain and shortness of breath.

Q: What are some Japanese foods we should beware of?

A: I think that the Japanese diet is too high in white rice. White rice is basically an empty calorie food. By this I mean it contains calories, but very few nutrients, because when you refine rice, you're removing all the beneficial phytonutrients, fiber, vitamins, minerals and beneficial oils. What you're left with is a concentrated starch, which is high in calories. Whole grains such as brown rice includes the germ, bran and thin cellophane skin, all of which are particularly rich in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, oils, fiber and protein.

A lot of Japanese take-away and convenience-type foods are also high in sodium, preservatives, flavoring, coloring, and MSG. MSG is a flavor enhancer commonly added to most processed foods at manufacturing facilities, Chinese food, canned vegetables, and soups here. Restaurants also frequently add MSG to their menu items.

Q: What common Japanese foods do you recommend and why?

A: I recommend lots of fish particularly deep-sea fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna, and sardines. They are best eaten raw as in sashimi, grilled or lightly sauteed. Deep-sea fish is high in omega-3 fatty acids (EPA/DHA), which has a whole host of health benefits. Research has found Omega-3s are protective against heart disease, stroke and an irregular heartbeat. These Omega-3s can also help you feel better and look better. They've been shown to fight depression and even fight wrinkles.

Whole-soy products such as miso, tempeh, tofu and natto (if you can stomach it) are an excellent source of high-quality digestible protein. They're also high in antioxidants, vitamins, minerals and protective phytonutrients or phytochemicals called soy isoflavones. Each of these isoflavones has unique benefits for health, but together they act synergistically, that's why it's far better to consume soy in whole form and not in isolated supplements. Research has found that whole soy products are protective against cancer, can help reduce cholesterol, guard against osteoporosis, and reduce many symptoms of menopause.

I also recommend soba and other buckwheat noodles. Diets that contain buckwheat have been linked to lowered risk of developing high cholesterol and high blood pressure. Buckwheat's beneficial effects are due in part to its rich supply of flavonoids, particularly rutin. Buckwheat also contains almost 86 milligrams of magnesium in a one-cup serving. Magnesium relaxes blood vessels, improves blood flow and nutrient delivery, while lowering blood pressure - the perfect combination for a healthy cardiovascular system. The nutrients in buckwheat also appear to contribute to blood sugar control.

Eat lots of local seasonal fruit and vegetables. A high intake of fruit and vegetables is linked to just about every single marker for health there is, including healthy bones, cardiovascular and immune systems, great skin and aging well. So why are these fruits and vegetables so important? We know that they are nutrient dense and rich in a variety of different vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants. They also contain thousands of biologically active compounds called phytonutrients or phytochemicals. According to research, these phytonutrients can lower your blood pressure, decrease your risk for stroke and heart attack, protect your eyes and memory, and control your weight by making you feel satisfied with fewer calories. Phytonutrients also help guard against many other age-related diseases. 

Q: Other than natto, what Japanese foods uncommon to Westerners are worth digging into and why?

A: Seaweeds or sea vegetables such as kelp, kombu, hijiki, nori, and wakame. Although, they take a bit of getting used to, seaweeds are among the richest sources of minerals.

Sesame seeds are a very good source of manganese and copper, along with calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorous, vitamin B1, zinc and dietary fiber. In addition to these important nutrients, sesame seeds also contain two unique substances: sesamin and sesamolin. Both of these substances belong to a group of special beneficial fibers called lignans, and have been shown to have a cholesterol-lowering effect and to prevent high blood pressure. Sesamin has also been found to protect the liver from oxidative damage.

Green tea is full of the antioxidant catcehins and polyphenols, as well as Vitamin A, C and E. Green tea has been linked with a reduced risk of heart disease, and research suggests that it has cancer-protective properties as well.

Shiitake, maitake and other local Japanese mushrooms have been shown to boost the immune system. This action is due to a compound in shitake called lentinan. Among lentinan's healing benefits is the ability to power up the immune system, strengthening its ability to fight infection and disease. Lentinan has also been shown to have anti-cancer properties. 

More about Erica Angyal and her book on nutrition for, "Gorgeous Skin in 30 Days" is at: http://www.gorgeous-skin.com.

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