Plain rice and chopsticks – why are Japanese so skinny?

What type of person would you imagine if I said Japanese? Is it possible that you thought of somebody not too high and lightly built?

Japanese have one of the lowest obesity levels across the developed countries, with just 3.5% of the population being obese. Need to compare? Americans are 12 times (12, Karl!) more likely to be obese, Russians – 7 times. Yep, these guys are pretty slim.

We have spent a bit travelling Japan and have gotten some idea as to how that was possible.

chopsticks are a thing!


You cannot stuff your face with food as effectively with chopsticks as you would have done with a fork. Our hunger levels depend on number of factors and the time we spend eating is one of them. Using chopsticks requires takes longer and you get sated with less food as a result. Our brain is not the most efficient system and it looks as if Japanese have hacked the system.

Japanese drink a lot of bottled tea and coffee, yet most of them are sugarless (0 kCal per bottle!) and are much more popular than cola and the like. Next time have a look at the label of your favourite iced tea, those that are sold in Europe and US will easily have over 40kCal per 100ml which is over 200kCal in a bottle.

Any pack of cookies will have more plastic wrapping than actual cookies, seriously every single piece is wrapped in its own piece of foil or cellophane. Remember the chocolate bars? Well in Japan you only have mini versions (exception only for snickers bar) and no big sized bars AT ALL. This works two ways:

  • Candy and snacks become really pricey. Even when the pack looks big, it actually is not: take all the wrapping away and you are left with just a few tiny pieces
  • You get very psychologically uncomfortable opening the 4th piece in a row. Even when eating tiny biscuits it becomes somewhat awkward when you consciously need to unwrap every single piece, let alone dinner situations when everybody sees the pile of plastic accumulating beside your plate


Japanese Starbucks has a separate size called ‘short’

Talking of drinks and portions. Japanese Starbucks even has a separate size called ‘short’, which comes before ‘tall’, i.e. is smaller! Drop by coffeeshop in Tokyo and you will see people with tiny to small glasses or regular coffee, the Venti double syrup Frappuccino with whipped cream and caramel on top just does not happen here.

Every package has nutrition info on it, I would not say it plays too much of a role (in US the effect is not immediately apparent) but hey, it never hurt nobody to know how much they are really eating.

If eating at home, Japanese would use tiny plates. Turns out that couple of tiny bowls of rice and one jumbo plate of the same rice will fill you almost to the same level – that’s just our old stupid brain. Pair that effect with using chopsticks and you get a nation of very light eaters.

By the way on rice. It is always steamed without salt and oil, even if the topping is very calorie dense (like the kontozu or beef), the rice itself is plain, which saves you from eating a lot of calories in oil and dressings compared to fried rice dishes.


Frankly? I invested into a pair of my own chopsticks, turns out you can eat anything with those (we even cooked borshch and pancakes so I know what I am talking about), and am now looking for a tiny bowl to carry with me on the travels. Let those be both a souvenir and a reminder to be thoughtful when I eat.


I Tokyo I came across I leaflet advertising weight loss clinic with before and after shots of the successful patients. A lady just lost 9 kg dropping from 55 to 46. And there I had just three considerations: i) 55 does not look too different from 46 even on a tiny Japanese lady, ii) by their standards I am an obese giant (174cm and 70 kg, huh), iii) in Russia you are not allowed to be a blood donor if you are below 50 kg, just for your own health and safety.

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