Japan is one of the healthiest nations in the world, and moving here will almost certainly alter your lifestyle for the better. The food is also incredible. Japan offers a wide range of cuisine to sample, but just like anywhere else, the nation has its fair share of unhealthy foods. Fast-food chains are increasing in popularity for their taste and convenience, and many beloved dishes like ramen and okonomiyaki are loaded with sodium and high in calories. Contrary to popular belief, it’s naïve to think while living in Japan you can eat anything you want and still be healthy. I’m not saying you can’t indulge in ice cream or kaarage (Japanese fried chicken) but take care to get all the nutrients you need from various fruits, vegetables, grains, and meats.
Fortunately, Japan has plenty of healthy foods, so it is relatively easy to avoid common pitfalls if you know what to buy. Cooking is the best way to eliminate added, unhealthy ingredients found in restaurant and pre-made foods from your diet. However, many people do not have the time or resources to cook every single night. For this reason, convenience stores (konbini) are popular spots to grab a quick meal or snack on the go. While well-known chains like Seven Eleven and Lawson carry many deliciously “bad” foods, there are also lots of healthier options available to purchase. Believe it or not, I eat almost one pre-made meal a day purchased from a konbini or grocery store! And it’s not because I don’t enjoy cooking. I love to try new recipes and plan meals. However, my kitchen in Japan is terribly small, and I’m always exhausted after a full day of teaching elementary school children. (Excuses, excuses I know). I’m not a nutritionist or physician, but I would like to share how I’ve lost 6 kilograms without ever turning on the stove!
1. Check your calories but don’t obsess.
Most convenience stores in Japan sell pre-made meals with nutrition and calorie information printed on the front label. Simply record these numbers to determine if you’re within your target calorie range. There are many websites like this one where you can calculate roughly how much you need to eat to maintain your weight or achieve weight loss. Once you have this number, it’s relatively easy to track how much you’re eating using an app like “My Fitness Pal” or “Lose It.”
While calorie counting is controversial and not always a sustainable way to lose weight, being aware of what foods inherently have more calories than others is helpful for achieving your goals. This method is primarily useful in the beginning of your weight loss journey so you can measure how much you eat in a typical day and compare that to what you’d need to eat to either maintain or lose weight. I used “Lose It” for several months to learn about the nutritional value of my food, and then I began to focus more on mindful eating. I no longer track every morsel of food I consume and instead aim to eat between 1500-1800 calories a day. At convenience stores, I look for meals that are around 450-700 calories. It’s important to remember that no two bodies are the same, and caloric needs change depending on your activity level, hormones, and age among other factors.
2. Avoid fried entrees.
Convenient stores and grocery stores sell every kind of bento you can imagine. Many of these include large servings of fried pork (tonkatsu) or shrimp tempura. These are delicious in moderation, but if enjoyed too often they can really wreak havoc on your healthy eating plans. Try to choose meals that have grilled fish or chicken instead. But, if you’re really craving the taste of breaded, fried deliciousness, there are plenty of bentos that include one small piece of fried chicken or shrimp on the side. This is a much healthier way to get your fix and stay on track.
3. Load up on vegetables.
Choose meals that contain a hearty side of vegetables. Vegetables contain heaps of beneficial vitamins and minerals essential for optimal nutrition. They are also a rich source of fiber which is essential in maintaining digestive health. Salads and certain variations of rice bowls are often full of bean sprouts, carrots, mushrooms, and radishes (daikon). If I choose a meal that doesn’t have loads of vegetables, I’ll often pick up a small salad or vegetable cup to eat on the side. I try to eat one cup of veggies with each meal. Be sure to pick lighter dressings such as an Italian vinaigrette to make your meal even healthier.
4. Mix and match.
While it’s tempting and easy to choose one pre-made meal and check out, you can create a variety of healthy meals by mixing and matching smaller items from the convenience store. One day for dinner you might choose to purchase a salmon or chicken filet along with a bag of pumpkin soup and a small tray of vegetables. If you need something extra to add to your meals, you can also pick up a hardboiled egg for additional protein. Convenience stores sell everything from prepackaged cuts of meat to shirataki noodles (made from konjac) so you can customize the perfect meal with minimal effort.
5. Don’t forget fruit.
Grocery stores are your best bet for finding juicy (albeit expensive) seasonal fruit. But even convenience stores still have easy options like bananas and fruit cups. When I want something sweet and comforting, I often grab a bag of sliced apples at Seven Eleven to dip in peanut butter at home. (Yes, you can find peanut butter in Japan at most import stores and even certain Aeon Mall grocery stores)! You can also find frozen fruits such as blueberries and mixed berries to enjoy in simple recipes you can prepare at home. I know I said no cooking required, but is making overnight oats really considered cooking? This dish is beyond easy to make. Order some oats online from Rakuten or pick them up at your local import store. I got mine from Costco. I love to top my Quaker concoction with frozen blueberries from Aeon because they’re loaded with good antioxidants, and they thaw overnight in the refrigerator. I’ve been loving a variation of this recipe lately:
- 1/2 cup of oats
- 3/4-1 cup of almond milk or milk of choice
- 1 tablespoon of peanut butter
- 1 teaspoon of cinnamon
- 1 tablespoon of chia seeds
- 1 teaspoon of honey
- 6-8 frozen blueberries or fruit of choice
- 1/4 cup crunchy topping of choice (granola)
- Single serving of plain greek yogurt (optional)
Combine the ingredients into a bowl, refrigerate, and presto! The next day you have a delicious bowl of creamy goodness.
6. Try oden!
Oden is an essential comfort food of Japan commonly eaten during the cooler autumn and winter months. The surprisingly simple hotpot dish usually includes healthy ingredients such as egg, daikon, konjac (konnyaku), fish cakes, seaweed, and tofu. The ingredients simmer in soy-based dashi broth, soaking up all the hearty flavor. There’s nothing like a bowl of oden after a cold day. Depending on your region, convenience stores will typically set up customizable hot pot stations near the checkout counter as summer rolls into autumn. Simply grab a bowl, add your ingredients of choice, and pour in the broth. I love to enjoy konjac in my oden because of its high fiber content and other health benefits. Daikon is also especially tasty and healthy. Most Oden ingredients are pretty healthy, but try to keep fried ingredients to a minimum.
7. Create an arsenal of healthy snacks.
When I visit convenience stores in need of a quick snack, I make an effort to bypass all the yummy sweets for better options like packaged nuts (almonds are my favorite) fruits (apples and bananas) greek yogurt, sliced meats, and Calorie Mate. I try to only eat Calorie Mate or comparable protein bars if I’m going to be hiking and need something in my bag that will satisfy me and keep well. Rice balls (onigiri) and sushi are also great and more filling snack options. Lately, I’ve also been enjoying small packages of edamame and kimchi as an appetizer to whatever I have for dinner. We all have moments of weakness and need something sweet. In times like these, I indulge in the small bag of chocolate covered almonds or a strawberry greek yogurt. Despite my rather annoying lactose sensitivity, I also love to occasionally treat myself with a small serving of Häagen-Dasz. Thank goodness for Japan’s petite portion sizes because let’s face it, a large container would probably leave me uncomfortably bloated and incapacitated.
Hopefully, this article helps you find diet-friendly foods at your local konbini or grocery store. In the coming weeks, I plan to suck it up and start cooking in my mini kitchen, so be on the lookout for related posts. And don’t worry, I have fire insurance just in case things spontaneously combust. For more tips check out one of my previous articles “Tips for Improving your Health and Losing Weight in Japan.”