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Why the Japanese Washoku Eating Plan Rivals the Mediterranean Diet

By March 14, 2018Featured
Washoku - Japanese cuisine

If you are into healthy eating and have never heard of Washoku, hold on to your hats! The attributes of this eating plan may astonish you.

What exactly is Washoku you ask? One writer for the Japan Times puts it this way: “Whenever I ponder the question of what Washoku, the quintessential Japanese cuisine, is, this is the meal I think of. It is simple yet complicated, plain yet sophisticated. It is salty, sour, sweet, slightly bitter and full of umami. And it is beautifully presented. Washoku does not hit you in the face with spice or other flamboyant flavors. It is a gentle caress as it satisfies your senses.”

Beyond that mouthwatering description, Washoku is an eating plan filled with vegetables (e.g., bamboo shoots, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, mushrooms) and tart and sweet fruits (e.g., melon, citrus). Grains such as rice, buckwheat and soba noodles as well as nuts (e.g., chestnuts) are key to this plan. Add to that a wide variety of fish (e.g., tuna, salmon) and soy products (e.g., tofu), both of which serve as the protein component of Washoku.

Sounds healthy and delicious? You bet. Many people, when thinking about traditional Japanese cuisine, are aware that Japan as a culture is known for its high intake of fish and soybean products and low intake of fat. Yet, as you can see from the examples of foods I just mentioned, the basic whole foods in the Washoku eating plan are very similar in composition to foods often suggested as part of the Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet is similarly comprised of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seafood, and both pretty much exclude red meat and sweets. However, one significant difference is that the Washoku plan focuses as heavily on flavor as it does the nutritional composition of the food.

More about Washoku and Traditional Japanese Cuisine

The same Japan Times article clarifies, “One of the key characteristics of Washoku is that it attempts to highlight the flavors and textures of the ingredients, rather than tries to disguise them. This concept of highlighting the ingredients themselves and their seasonality is very trendy worldwide, but it’s been the central concept of Washoku for hundreds of years. Washoku flavoring tends to be quite subtle. There are very few very spicy ingredients, for example; when spices are used, they are applied sparingly for a flash of stimulation.”

What is so fundamental to the flavor of this eating plan? “The key flavor of Washoku is a word for which there is no good translation, so it’s become a part of the culinary vernacular worldwide: umami. Umami is that satisfying flavor that is at the heart of so many dishes, especially savory ones, but is also in sweet dishes, too.” (As you know from reading our blogs, umami is recognized as the basic fifth taste, commonly known as the “savory” taste.)

Washoku Gaining Favor Worldwide

Washoku is so highly regarded beyond Japan that it was registered in 2013 as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, describes Washoku as “a social practice based on a set of skills, knowledge and traditions related to the production, processing, preparation and consumption of food. It is associated with an essential spirit of respect for nature that is closely related to the sustainable use of natural resources.”

But Washoku is much, much more than a social practice, and while it is characteristic of Japanese cuisine it is best defined as an exceptionally flavorful and healthful eating plan.

Recent research published in the February 2018 issue of the international scientific journal Nutrients defines (as the research title says): “The Role of the Japanese Traditional Diet in Healthy and Sustainable Dietary Patterns around the World.” The study’s authors delineate why the Washoku eating plan and its umami properties could have a positive impact on “global growth in the prevalence of obesity, overweight and lifestyle-related non-communicable diseases.”

The most important conclusions reached by the researchers are: “The Japanese traditional diet (Washoku), which is characterized by high consumption of fish and soybean products and low consumption of animal fat and meat, relies on the effective use of umami taste to enhance palatability. There may be a link between Washoku and the longevity of the people in Japan. Thus Washoku and umami may be valuable tools to support healthy eating.”

You can read the abstract of this journal article for yourself; there you can also find a link to the research in its entirety where you will see that the researchers “put forward an argument that Japanese traditional diet practices (Washoku), which prominently include the flavoring of foods with umami taste, can be characterized as a healthy diet in the same way that the DASH diet or the Mediterranean diet is so classified.”

The researchers also underscore the importance of taste in guiding food choice and the important role that genetically-based individual differences in taste perception can have on a person’s food selection behavior. They are hopeful that “several of the principles of Washoku will be studied and adopted by physicians, nutritionists, dieticians and others engaged in encouraging healthful eating.”

Where Healthy and Delicious Meet

So, considering the fact that Japan is among the nations with the highest average life span for both men and women, I encourage you to learn more about the benefits of traditional Japanese cuisine (specifically Washoku). Start with your own Google-ing about these delicious Japanese foods and flavors: sushi, miso soup, ramen noodles, tempura, Kobe beef, soba and udon noodles, tofu, sukiyaki, kombu, bonito, konomono, mirin, wasabi, dashi, mochi, and of course umami!

The more educated you become about Japanese cuisine I guarantee you’ll soon be proclaiming, “Oishii!” (meaning, of course, “the food tastes delicious!”).


Kaye is an author and consulting nutritionist with more than 15 years’ experience representing clients in the food industry, providing strategic leadership and consulting on meal planning, recipe development, consumer-focused educational materials relating to food and nutrition, science-based communications, and media relations. Read more about her background on the About page.

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