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Why are Japanese people so skinny?

Is there more to skinny Japanese people than just their diet?

By 5 min read 1

They eat rice, ramen, and udon. Carbohydrates make us fat, but why are Japanese are still so slim? My American friends tell me it’s “their” genes but I don’t agree with that. Within the first two years of moving to the States, I had gained a lot of weight because of sudden change in my diet and lifestyle.

So I believe that it is more about the lifestyle that is helping Japanese people stay slim. In this article, I want to explore Japanese eating habit, lifestyle and social culture that prevent most of Japanese from becoming overweight. Japanese are known for their high life expectancy and if there is something we can learn from them, we can certainly apply that to our current lifestyle.

Long commute to school and work

Japanese people take the train everyday to go to school or work, which means they do a lot of walking. Walk to the station, walk up and down the stairs, walk to work or school. During rush hour, trains are packed so they usually don’t even get to sit down and as soon as they get off the train, they have to walk to their final destination. They usually take the exact same route so it is not uncommon for Japanese people to spend nearly 1-2 hours per day.

It is also common for Japanese students or employees to ride a bicycle to school or work. When I was in high school, I rode my bike for 45 minutes per way to school. That alone was a great exercise and I still had a full schedule and PE class once a day that made me run 8 kilometers in the afternoon.

Food Portion

My parents who live in Japan visited me a year or so ago, and they were shocked to see the food portions served in restaurants in the US. Japanese food portions are usually small and typically many restaurants don’t allow “to go” option, so they serve just the right portion for one person only.

I believe that this is a significant factor that helps Japanese people remain skinny. In the US, they serve a huge plate and huge refillable large size drink. When you are enjoying your dinner with your friends, it is so easy to overeat because you don’t want to waste the food and the food is available!

Peer Pressure

Since we don’t see many overweight people in Japan, overweight people tend to stand out and can feel uncomfortable due to the silent pressure from their peers. Sometimes they are not so silent. My Japanese friends often remind me about the weight gain whenever I see them. It is very rude to talk about the weight in America and unless I bring that up, nobody tells me that I’ve put on some weight. But Japanese are pretty blunt.

I went to get a massage in Osaka a few years ago, and the masseuse who was giving me massage told me “this must be tough for you.” I knew exactly what she was talking about because my weight was at its peak. “I live in America and just visiting..” I told her. She then went on to ask me about the diet, exercise..basically telling me that I was fat! I was embarrassed so I worked hard to shed some pounds right after that massage.

Shopping for large sizes in Japan.

In America, I don’t feel the urge to work on losing weight because there are lots of stores that carry large dresses, underwear and plus size clothing. In Japan, even large is equivalent to medium in America. They do have plus size sections in special department stores but it is inconvenient that you can’t find your size in a regular department store.

Even Japanese 24-hour convenience stores such as 7-11 sell emergency shirts and underwear but these are usually too small if you are overweight. This really motivates Japanese people to keep track of their weight because gaining weight can be an inconvenience when shopping.

Preventive Medicine

Because of the influence of American fast food culture, obesity is slowly becoming to be an epidemic in Japan. My father is a Japanese corporate salaryman and he has to go through a series of rigorous physical exams to make sure that he is healthy. It was a routine test and many Japanese schools implement the same rules so the health system in Japan definitely make people more conscious of their weight.

If you’re overweight the last thing you want is for your coworkers to find out what your dress size is.

Another thing that I recently learned is that Japan has a more strict BMI scale. BMI stands for body mass index. In the US, normal weight is between 18.5-24.9 BMI and overweight is considered a BMI of 25-29.9 and obesity is a BMI of 30 or greater. However, in Japan, overweight starts at a BMI of 23.0 and there are three or four different type of obesity and the criteria is much more strict than the one in the US.


There are a number of reasons that explain why Japan has one of the lowest obesity rates among the developed countries. Obesity can lead to diabetes, high blood pressure and stroke. Obesity is reversible but left untreated, it can spiral out of control.

Although I still drive to work here in America, I can take a walk during lunch break and try to cook healthy Japanese food for dinner. There are many things that we can do to keep our weight under control and we can learn a lot from the Japanese lifestyle.

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  • Ricardo Soto says:

    I read all your information and it is very interesting the detailed article about how Japanese people eat and now I understand why they are so thin! Thank you for your article!



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