Wagashi are not some sort of magic Japanese diet food

Someone alerted me to this entry on the Health.com blog which quotes me. [2011 update: The post is now gone from the Health.com site, but you can still see it in the Internet Archive.] (Health.com is a Time Inc. property.) I just wanted to set some things straight, because a couple of the statements there are just not right.

The Time Inc. reporter contacted me with some questions, based on her premise that wagashi or Japanese sweets were healthier for you because they were low fat (or at least no added fat; there is some fat content in the beans used). She wanted to know if this was a reason why Japanese people were generally thin.

What I basically said to the reporter was this: no, I don’t think the lack of butter and cream in wagashi have anything to do with the general thinness of Japanese people. As I am quoted as saying, things like smaller portions, more movement and societal pressure are the main causes. I also said that a traditional Japanese meal does not include a dessert course.

So I was not misquoted as such. But the rest of the article goes on to say some rather misleading things, which I am rather surprised by since I gave the writer plenty of information which would have, I thought, logically lead her away from her preconception that wagashi are some magical diet snack.

First and most inaccurate: “The Japanese are not fond of cream, chocolate, butter, or the fattening ingredients that comprise the typical Western dessert.” - As anyone who has spent any time in Japan knows, this is absolutely not true. Japanese people love cakes and gateaus and puddings chocolates and choux buns. Beard Papa, anyone? Pocky? Purin? Cute Sanrio characters named after sweet sticky buns? I would venture to say that Tokyo may have more French-style patisseries per capita than almost any other city except for Paris and Vienna. Those skinny Japanese women love love love Western style pastries. Those pastries may not necessarily be eaten as part of a main meal as dessert, but are eaten between meals for sure.

The article also goes onto recommend giving wagashi a try. Of course, why not? You may like them, you may not. (I’ve noticed that non-Asian people have very mixed reactions to Asian sweets in general.) However if anyone thinks that wagashi will aid your weight loss efforts, please think again. They are loaded with highly refined white sugar and often use white rice or wheat flour. They are in that sense about on par with those infamous low-fat cookies, Snackwells. Surely we are beyond the point of thinking that eating low fat but high sugar snacks leads to weight loss?

A point in favor of wagashi is that many are partly made with some kind of bean - though almost always hulled beans, so with a lot less fiber than say, your average baked beans. Also, most wagashi are made in tiny little portions which, because they are so sweet, you can only eat slowly, usually with a cup of green tea. Finally, they may make you feel full simply because you’re not used to the texture and taste. But all this is simply speculation. I for one could probably eat more taiyaki or ichigo daifuku than I could a dense chocolate cake in one sitting.

Comparing apples to oranges, or rather wagashi to Western pastries

Here are some calories for some typical Japanese sweets. The source is the official food nutrient database (五訂食品標準成分表) which is published by the Japanese Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, the standard reference for all dieticians and health professionals in Japan. Numbers are rounded off for simplicity.

  • 1 daifuku (mochi (beaten white rice) dumpling filled with sweet azuki beans): 160 calories
  • 1 piece of yohkan (a block of azuki bean paste): about 100 calories for a piece approx. 1 cm (less than half an inch) thick
  • 1 dorayaki (two little pancakes with a mound of sweet azuki beans in the middle): 240 calories, most of which comes from refined sugar and white flour

Now here are the calories for single portion sizes of Western style sweets as they are typically sold, and eaten, in Japan:

  • 1 individual serving of purin (caramel custard): 110 calories
  • 1 small choux pastry filled with custard: 150 calories
  • 1 piece strawberry ‘shortcake’ (actually a spongecake filled and frosted with whipped cream, with strawberries in the middle and on top): 350 calories

Not such a huge difference is there? Yes, those typical Japanese cake and pudding portions are quite small. The piece of strawberry shortcake for example is just about the size of the palm of my hand. A choux bun is about 3 inches in diameter.

So we come to same old boring conclusion

Anyway, why are Japanese women generally thin? I’ve addressed this subject in depth a little while ago, but to put it in a nutshell:

  • They eat less. Portions are much smaller.
  • They move more.
  • There’s a lot of societal pressure to remain skinny

Not very novel or cute answers I’m afraid. There is no magic pill, or little sweet.

(Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, nutritionist or health professional. But I would challenge anyone to get a Japanese health professional to come up with the conclusion that eating wagashi in lieu of Western style sweets can help people lose weight.)

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I actually often hate it

I actually often hate it when people ask ME if Chinese food was my key to being thin. No. Food is food everywhere. Meat still has fat in it. So do the oils and butters I love to use in my cooking. I’m a college student and I eat some really nasty stuff sometimes—-last night I had alcohol at a birthday party after taking in a huge dark chocolate cupcake. But the key isn’t NOT eating Western or unhealthy food… it’s eating everything in moderation.

I’m sick and tired of a lot of people thinking that Asian food is the magic key to less weight.

Aimee | 3 May, 2008 - 19:50

I’m sick and tired of a

I’m sick and tired of a lot of people thinking that Asian food is the magic key to less weight.>>

so what will they say about fat asians? that fat asians is a myth o.O;

cheryl | 20 May, 2008 - 13:23

Thanks for this entry!

As a future dietitian (hopefully), it annoys me how the media keeps on perpetuating this idea how there’s ONE secret/instant gratification solution to nutrition/a healthy lifestyle. Well if there is one, it’s really just to eat a balanced diet with everything in moderation. There isn’t one food that is better or worse for you; you can always have too much of anything. What annoys me the most is that people trust these types of blogs, so thanks for trying to clear things up.

Vincci | 3 May, 2008 - 23:20

Wow, Maki, your hand must be

Wow, Maki, your hand must be quite small if a piece of shortcake is the size of you palm. Now I feel even larger than I normally do.

The servings sizes for meats and pastries definately fall into the three ounces or less guidelines from what I have observed.

Another thing I have noticed, if I go out to eat with a mixed group of Westerners and Japanese the Westerners always leave food on their plate, but the Japanese clean their plates! I have difficulty eating everything served to me at a Japanese restaurant even with smaller serving sizes. But my friends, they do not stop until they have eaten every pickle, every morsel of rice, every shred of cabbage salad, and they drink every drop of their soup. I marvel at this ability.

One of the top sellers at Amazon.jp for a long time were the Billy Bank’s Bootcamp DVDs. My neighbors wake up early, do Billy’s Bootcamp, walk their dogs for a couple of miles, and then walk to the market, walk to the schools, walk to lunch, walk to the parks…they walk. I really believe the reason most Japanese people are slim is because they are so physical and they are always walking or working.

booklegger | 4 May, 2008 - 00:43

I eat more in Japan that I

I eat more in Japan that I did in the US. This includes snacking, which I didn’t do much of in the US. I think the difference (at least for me) is pre-processed foods vs. non-preprocessed and moving around a lot, not so much portion size. I frequently find the portions large when I go out to eat, particularly the rice portion.

Caitlin | 4 May, 2008 - 01:37

Hi, this reminds me of the

Hi, this reminds me of the recent discussions about French women being stick-thin despite enjoying rich food of all kind. Not in my neck of the woods!

anon. | 4 May, 2008 - 13:17

I agree

I think the other factor that people tend to forget when recommending food substitutions is that sometimes you just want the “bad” food. If I, the dieter, am going nuts because I want a piece of chocolate cake, I could eat some daifuku I suppose… but I will probably still want some chocolate cake, and now I am set back 100 calories. If I’m feeling particularly awful that day I could end up eating both.
I think the approach shouldn’t be to switch to some other sweet (or fatty or salty or whatever) food in order to cut cravings and lose weight, but rather to try to figure out why we want to eat these foods in excessive amounts… and then try to change our ways of thinking about food and eating.
I think in the end, with sweets, a lot of the answer comes down to portion control. As you said, this is certainly one way in which the Japanese really have it right (and Americans really have it wrong). You can’t buy pastries or cookies in America that aren’t the size of your face! :(

Sara | 4 May, 2008 - 20:19

The Size of Your Plate Matters

The bigger the plate, the more you fill it up! Recently I was shopping for some new dinnerware because it’s been at least 15 years since I bought new plates, etc. I was shocked that dinner plates now are commonly 10” to 11” in diameter, salad plates are 9” across, bowls are 8” and very deep. I was feeling as if I’d need to invest in a new table as well, just to fit the giant plates!

Tess | 5 May, 2008 - 13:58

Too many factors involved to list just one

As someone with a slightly “hippie” outlook, I’m of the opinion that the North American food industry plays its part in the obesity epidemic. The prevalence of trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup in commercial foods — which our bodies simply don’t know how to handle — simply to save fractions of a penny per unit, must be affecting the populace.

I also believe that meat growth hormones will be firmly linked to obesity in the near future. How can we believe that the hormones which cause the mammals we eat to store fat don’t cause any biological changes in us?

Additionally, all of the factors listed above (portion sizes, active vs. sedentary lifestyles, societal pressures, customs regarding food, etc.) just add to the mix. Saying that such-and-such a type of food will cause a person to lose weight is, at best, a naive outlook given the wealth of information we have regarding what we eat.

ghanima | 5 May, 2008 - 16:55

another mis-representation

Something else that struck me while reading that post was how she said your recipes a time consuming. Are they? I’m always struck by how elegantly simple most of them are. Desem bread excluded. :) (I don’t make beans so can’t compare the aforementioned azuki recipes.)

Anyway, it’s interesting/disappointing how mixed up a report can be even though the reporter spoke to the source and supposedly read some of your blog.

I guess all communication is just like that old game of “telephone”.

julie | 5 May, 2008 - 20:46

The time consuming comment

The time consuming comment didn’t bother me much, since I’m sure for some people anything beyond venting a frozen dinner and sticking it in the microwave is time consuming. But the rest was just wrong, which is why I felt the need to write this post.

(I did feel when the writer was email-interviewing me that it wasn’t going to go well. What I was telling her clearly was not meeting her preconceived ‘angle’. Oh well.)

maki | 6 May, 2008 - 07:24

Pan Ya San パン屋さん

Don’t little girls in Japan want to be Bakery/Patisserie Managers when they grow up? (Or has that now become outdated, like English girls wanting to be nurses).
Strangest part of the article to me was the tasting of the wagashi. The concensus seemed to be that it wasn’t very nice, i.e. horrid enough to take your appetite away, thus a slimming aid.
Eating wagashi without drinking green tea (as Amy and her colleague did) is missing the whole point of wagashi, no wonder they didn’t like it nor wanted to eat more of them.
She may have stumbled on a valid point though (even if she didn’t realise it), there IS a way to cut down on calories when eating dessert… drink lots of unsweetened tea at the same time. A small (and I stress small) portion of any dessert at all and lots of green tea can be a lovely way to end a meal. The tea can make you feel full and the sweet taste will help satisfy a craving.
Certainly more effective than larding up on a tray of donuts and sugary milky coffee.

It’s ALWAYS down to self-discipline.

One bite into a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (I’m amazed by them and don’t recognise them as edible) and I don’t feel like eating any more either. Perhaps I should be touting these as slimming aids. :D

Loretta | 6 May, 2008 - 12:12

The peanut butter cup diet!

Great idea Loretta. Write a book with that title and make zillions :P

Drinking a lot of tea or other liquids (no-calorie) is a good idea when eating anything, especially calorically dense food, that I agree with 100%.

maki | 6 May, 2008 - 12:56

I actually could probably

I actually could probably eat myself sick on mochi. I think it’s one of the best pastries in the world… (my brother and sister in law agree with me) We were raised with it, and were usually only able to get the fresh kind once a year at a local Japanese food festival. (which was just this past weekend) but we’ve recently found another source who sells it on tangy frozen yogurt. It’s already become a favorite family stop.

cmtigger | 12 August, 2008 - 04:50

Mochi

Ha! Mochi!
Both my kids are obsessed with it, and I really don’t care for it at all. We have nice Asian markets nearby where you can get fresh Mochi and Duc each day, and they love to buy it when they are in that area.
But I just can’t get into it. The flavor is fine, it’s the texture that I can’t get past. It reminds me of glue. And yes, I’ve tried the ice cream filled kind.
But that’s OK, my two girls will be able to support their sales no problem, lol!
I do however, love those cream filled puffs some sushi places have at the end of the meal. Those are deadly good! lol!

I’ll have to try some other types of wagashi sometime soon.

BarbJ | 27 September, 2008 - 04:49

Re: Mochi

If mochi is reminding you of glue, then it's too sticky.

In my opinion the best way to eat it, though, is to grill it till it puffs up and gets crispy. The chewiness is a great contrast to the crispy crust.

marnen | 24 August, 2011 - 05:12

I’ll attest to the walking

I’ll attest to the walking part. I went to Japan recently. I stayed about 3 weeks and whatever I wanted, but I was walking so much that I came home 15 lbs lighter. Generally, I’d say that the food is healthier than what I ate in the U.S., but my boyfriend’s mom cooks really healthy meals because his father has a heart condition. I ate my fair share of sweets (his dad was so happy I was around because his mom let his dad eat sweets with me, something she doesn’t usually allow in the house :P) and konbini food, but still managed to shed pounds that I was never able to get rid of at home.

But really, it’s all common sense. A balanced diet and enough exercise will keep just about anyone healthy. It amazes me that people are still waiting for some magic pill (or wagashi, in this case) to substitute their lack of self-discipline.

Jenn | 14 October, 2008 - 22:59

Re: Wagashi are not some sort of magic Japanese diet food

Great read! I can't believe the reporter leapt to those conclusions, but it sounds like her mind was already leaning toward those ends, and she wanted some material to hepl her get there.

I agree with you on reasons for being slimmer, and just wanted to add in the genetic factor. People blessed with a fast metabolism (like me!) are going to be thinner.

Thanks for posting!

MrRon9 | 24 March, 2011 - 03:24

Re: Wagashi are not some sort of magic Japanese diet food

Yokan, daifuku and dorayaki are terrible temptations for me and I admit to stocking up on them when I make my semi-regular trips to the Japanese supermarket on the other side of town. Dango coated with adzuki paste is another weakness.

However, I've never once deluded myself into that daft way of thinking, "Oh-it's-Japanese-so-must-be-healthy"! I eat these sweets because I love them. They are not a substitute for chocolate or candy and anyone would be a fool to think that a bar of yokan is 'better' than a mini Mars bar, especially if the relevant information clearly marked in English.

I'm not sure about other countries, but here in Australia the ingredients and calorie count MUST be clearly marked on the package in English if the food is imported from another country. The main importer of Japanese goods here is Jun Pacific and they have excellent nutritional labelling, so there's no deluding yourself regarding the sugar content!

Bottom line is - the myth of certain foods from exotic lands being 'better for you' is totally busted if you can read the darn label.

And believe me, I feel just as guilty eating one yokan bar after another... after another... as I would a pack of Jaffa cakes or Snickers.

Rachel from Melbourne | 4 November, 2011 - 14:33

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