Beat weight gain after moving to Japan with these Tokyo dietitian approved tips

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“When did you move to Japan?” might seem like an odd question to ask my patients seeking weight loss guidance. In my experience as a Tokyo dietitian, however, the root cause of many of my patients’ weight gain issues is a move abroad. Combine the stress of moving across the world with an unfamiliar food environment, and it’s no surprise that shifting your life to Japan can act as a weight gain accelerator.

While I avoid focusing on weight alone as a measure of health, gaining weight after a move is often linked to issues with diet quality, food access and one’s relationship to food.

Regardless of whether the scale changes after a move or not, below are my top tips to help new residents improve their diets and find sustainable solutions to their nutrition problems.

Problem #1: You’re eating all of your meals out

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Caption. Image: yamasan/Pixta

For food lovers, a move to Japan can initially seem like a dream come true.

From cheap and delicious street food to one of the highest numbers of Michelin-starred restaurants worldwide, the options for good food are dizzying. Yet it is this abundance of options that can cause a problem for some of my patients. The urge to dine out and try all of the new, delicious food can lead some of my patients to do exactly that, but for all of their meals.

While I support the idea of exploring Japanese cuisine, it’s difficult to ensure adequate intake of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and other nutrient-dense foods if you’re only dining out. Although there are restaurants serving more healthful options, most diners are more excited for less nutrient-dense foods that may be fried or high in sugar.

Solution:

To start, I assure my patients that all foods can fit into a balanced diet and encourage them not to take the extreme approach of banning all restaurant food. Doing so only leads to feeling overly restricted, which usually results in binge eating over the long term.

Instead, we work together to come up with a better balance of eating out and eating in. To come up with this, we often talk about meals that are easy and nutritious to make at home quickly.

If cooking at home isn’tt a realistic option, we also discuss more nutrient-dense options they can choose at restaurants or talk about restaurants that serve healthier fare. Through these approaches, we can create a balance of foods that satisfy the need for both fun and improved nutrition.

Problem #2: You’re not familiar with the Japanese food environment

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Caption. Image: アラヤシキ/Pixta

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While some people come to Japan excited to eat the local food, others arrive feeling less enthusiastic and a lot more overwhelmed. Walking through a local grocery store can take a frustrating turn when you don’t know what to buy or where to find food you’re used to eating. Although international grocery stores can be found in larger cities, these tend to be expensive and may not be convenient. This can cause some patients to give up trying to understand the local cuisine and resort to eating basic, unbalanced meals or fast food.

Solution:

Although it takes effort and an adventurous spirit, learning the basics of Japanese home cooking is easier than ever. In addition to the plethora of YouTube cooking videos, I often recommend the Just One Cookbook website and ebooks. The author, Namiko Hirasawa Chen, writes recipes and instructions that are very foreigner-friendly and takes the time to explain Japanese cooking methods, kitchen tools, and ingredients in an easy and accessible way.

In addition to learning about local foods, I encourage my patients to find recipes from their home country that use ingredients they can find here. For example, searching a website for recipes that use foods like rice, salmon, or eggplant might yield a recipe that would be suitable to be made with ingredients found here. While it may not turn out the same as it might in your home country, the results are often better than expected.

Problem #3: You find it hard to recalibrate your portion sizes

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Caption. Image: y.uemura/Pixta

When people eat, they often use several cues to help them determine how much food they need. Some of these cues are external, such as using the portion size of foods served to you, reading nutrition labels for calorie information, or imitating how others around you eat. This means that for those who rely on external cues, moving to a new country where you can’t read food labels or aren’t sure about your portion sizes can cause uncertainty and result in under or overeating.

Solution:

While it’s okay to use some external cues to guide your food intake, learning to use your body’s internal hunger cues is important.

Ancient Japanese wisdom also supports this idea in the form of hara hachi bu. This traditional practice, which loosely translates to “eat until you are eighty percent full,” is used by the Japanese as a reminder to tune into your body’s hunger and satiety signals and stop eating before you reach total fullness. This concept is especially popular in Okinawa, where the island’s residents are notorious for their long lifespans and low rates of obesity and chronic disease.

With this in mind, I work with my patients to help them become more intuitive eaters.

Upon practicing more mindful eating, many patients are shocked to realize how often they were eating past their ideal fullness levels because they were bored, busy or distracted. While it takes time to get used to trusting your body to regulate your food intake, embracing the traditional wisdom of hara hachi bu can promote a healthy and balanced relationship with food.

Although it can be difficult at first, maintaining a healthy weight and diet after moving to Japan is possible when armed with the right knowledge, resources and support. By blending the above strategies with a positive mindset, you can enjoy all that Japan has to offer while supporting your health and nutrition too.

Victoria Lindsay, MS RD, is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant working at Tokyo Medical & Surgical Clinic and her Tokyo-based private practice. To get in touch, please visit: www.victorialindsayrd.com.

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