Health & Wellness

Secrets of the world's healthiest children: 6 longevity lessons from Japan

If you had complete power to engineer a long, vigorous life, you might start by choosing to be born in Japan.

The country has the highest “healthy life expectancy” in the world, with Japanese boys and girls expected to live to 73 without any major illness or disability, according to a recent study published in The Lancet. Their overall life expectancy is in the 80s.

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The way Japanese people eat and move gives them a major longevity and health advantage.

The U.S. doesn’t even make the top 10, with an American boy born in 2013 expected to enjoy good health until about age 65 and live 76 years, on average.

What is it about Japan that makes it such a center of wellness? It’s a question Naomi Moriyama and her husband William Doyle set out to investigate in their new book, “Secrets of the World's Healthiest Children: Why Japanese Children Have the Longest, Healthiest Lives — And How Yours Can Too.”

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“The way Japanese people eat and move gives them a major longevity and health advantage,” Moriyama — who grew up in Japan and is now based in New York — told TODAY.

“Compared with other developed nations, Japanese people on average eat fewer calories per day, and in a healthier pattern: more fish, more vegetable products, less meat and dairy, smaller desserts and more reasonable portion sizes.”

Here are six lessons from Japan your family can adopt to boost your health:

1. Choose foods with fewer ‘calories per bite’

A typical Japan-style meal is a small bowl of rice, a bowl of miso soup and three side dishes served in little plates or bowls: a modest-sized portion of fish, meat or tofu and two vegetable-based side dishes, Moriyama said.

She doesn’t suggest you start cooking authentic Japanese cuisine, but she encourages tweaks toward “Japan-style family eating patterns.”

Enjoy more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fish, which are lower in calorie density. Consume fewer processed foods and items with excessive calories or added sugars.

RELATED: Picky eating linked with psychiatric problems in kids, study finds

2. Practice ‘flexible restraint’

Severe food restriction or “food demonization” are not part of the Japanese lifestyle. Children are encouraged to enjoy treats and snacks, but in the right amounts and frequency, Moriyama said. Food is served on smaller plates, with little super-sizing.

“We are strong believers in ‘flexible restraint’ when it comes to less healthy foods, which is a Japanese cultural pattern,” Moriyama said.

“Go ahead and enjoy pizza, ice cream, cookies or chips with your family from time to time — we certainly do. Just keep the portions smaller and less frequent inside your house.”

To avoid temptations, don’t keep huge bags of potato chips and vats of ice cream in the house.

Courtesy Naomi Moriyama
Authors Naomi Moriyama and William Doyle.

RELATED: What kind of milk should you give your kids?

3. Reach for rice

The moist, fluffy rice that is still a staple of Japanese and other Asian cuisines is super-filling and displaces less filling choices like dry bread, Moriyama said.

“You often hear that white rice is a ‘high glycemic index, ‘spikes your blood sugar’ and leads to weight gain. But in fact, experts disagree over whether the glycemic index is of any value in evaluating foods for non-diabetic people,” she noted.

“Sushi, for example, is not a high glycemic food because the rice is mixed with other foods like fish, veggies and seaweed. And consuming such mixed meals and foods is the way Japanese people usually eat rice, so any negative ‘glycemic impact’ is minimized or eliminated.”

She and Doyle agree with most experts, who suggest brown rice is best because it has more nutrients.

4. Start walking

The Japanese have physical activity built into their lives from a very early age. More than 98 percent of Japanese children walk or bike to school, according to the World Health Organization.

That means most Japanese kids are meeting the recommendations for children to get 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity per day just by walking to and from school, Moriyama said. It sets up a life-long habit of regular exercise.

If giving up the school bus is not realistic for your kids, find other ways to get moving.

“Here's the easiest tip of all: Switch off your electronic devices for an hour at night, go out and take a brisk power-walk together with your family, no excuses,” Moriyama advised.

“The health benefits for children… are tremendous.”

Shoot for an hour of physical activity most days of the week.

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Most Japanese children walk or bike to school.

5. Be your child's lifestyle authority

One of the strongest themes to emerge from Moriyama’s research is that the foods chosen, sampled and enjoyed together at home are strong predictors of a child's healthy lifestyle later in life.

Japanese parents inspire their children from infancy to try to enjoy a wide variety of different healthy foods, including many different fruits and vegetables, she said. Kids often eat meals together with their family as a regular ritual.

RELATED: 5 tips from scientists that instantly had my kids eating healthy

Rather than being "authoritarian" parents, who forbid sugar or say things like, "Finish everything on your plate or there's no ice cream,” the Japanese strive to be "authoritative" parents, Moriyama said. They model healthy eating and don’t over-react when a child refuses a new food or doesn't finish everything on their plate.

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Japanese kids are encouraged to try new foods from a very early age.

6. The power of lunch

Japanese schools turn children into “healthy foodies” with the help of the country’s famous school lunch program, Moriyama said.

Starting in elementary school, kids are served a mid-day meal of very healthy dishes that are often made from locally grown foods and freshly prepared on site. If students don’t like the lunch, they’re out of luck. Unhealthy food options are simply not available.

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“This way, believe me, they learn to like the healthy, delicious choices put in front of them,” Moriyama noted.

The kids help prepare and serve the lunch; and food education is part of the curriculum. Students visit local farms, and learn about nutrition, cooking, table manners, and social skills. It all puts children on a path of healthy lifetime habits, Moriyama said.

“The lesson for parents in the U.S. and elsewhere is: You usually can’t influence what your child gets for lunch at school, but you can be their guide and inspiration for breakfast and dinner,” she added.

This story was originally published in October 2015. Follow A. Pawlowski on Google+ and Twitter.

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