03 Sep 2016
Why this FODMAP Friendly Vegan is obsessed with Japanese Cuisine
If you’ve been following my work for a while, you’ve probably gathered by now that I’m a pseudo little Japanese lady, both in my lifestyle habits (I’m perhaps the most boring 24-year old you’ve ever come across! 🙂 ), as well in my culinary preferences. I am utterly obsessed with all things Japanese – the culture, the people, the obsession with hygiene and orderliness, the place, the lifestyle, and, most importantly, the food! But there is a slight method behind my madness! My adoration of all things Japanese is founded on research. The Japanese diet is not only one of the healthiest in the world (particularly the Okinawan diet, which is considered to be amongst the best for promoting longevity) it is also one of the diets that is easiest on the old digestive system … a big tick for someone like me who struggles severely with other Asian cuisines like Indian and Chinese. Below, I have listed some principles of Japanese cuisine that we could all (especially those of us who struggle with IBS) incorporate a little more of into our everyday diet.
- A wide consumption of vegetables (especially greens): The Japanese diet is chock a block full of veggies, ranging in all different colours, and, consequently, supplying a host of different nutrients and health benefits (read more about these veggies in the In My Kitchen section). From carrots, to parsnips, to eggplant, to zucchini, to potato, to greens – think bok choy, spinach, lettuce … all low FODMAP veggies that are very easy to digest and that abundant in a range of nutrients. Pretty much every Japanese meal & snack is centered around veggies, so fibre intake tends to be well above average in the Japanese diet, despite the frequent consumption of rice and grains.
- The frequent consumption of sea vegetables: Sea vegetables are one of the richest sources of vegan iodine. In western countries where Iodine deficiency is a problem due to our nutrient depleted soils where foods are grown, sea veggies are a fabulous addition to any diet. Sea veggies are also high in fibre, and packed with other minerals that can be lacking in a vegan diet. One of my favourite “superfoods” (although I hate that term!)
- Small servings of beans & legumes: While beans and legumes can cause digestive distress if not prepared correctly (i.e., not pre-soaked prior to cooking thoroughly), they are a wonderful source of several important nutrients, and one of the highest sources of vegan protein. The Japanese tend to enjoy beans and legumes in the form of tofu and tempeh, and in moderated servings (think Japanese Bento boxes). Perfect for meeting your nutrient requirements while not overloading your digestive system.
- The inclusion of several gluten-free, easy to digest carbohydrates: While gluten-free and low FODMAP are not the same thing, gluten is a protein that most people with digestive issues tend to struggle with, so I tend to recommend complete avoidance, at least during the elimination phase of the low FODMAP diet. Gluten-free & low FODMAP rice is synonymous with the Japanese diet, and so it should be! All varieties from white to black to brown are frequently consumed and enjoyed, both in savoury and sweet dishes. Potatoes are also commonplace, as are soba and rice noodles. In addition to being gluten-free, these foods are all amongst some of the easiest to digest. Do not fear the carbs! They form a vital component of any vegan diet, and are important for proper brain and metabolic functioning.
- Fermented products such as Miso, fermented veggies, tamari, and tempeh, are frequently included in small quantities (all you need) in most Japanese meals. Fermented products add various kinds of beneficial flora to our digestive systems, and are an important inclusion for all IBS sufferers’ diets.
- Not so sweet tooth: The traditional Japanese diet also has little to no reliance on refined white sugar, and includes small, infrequent servings of fruit that is relatively easy to digest, like melons and berries. Great for those who struggle to digest fructose.
- Green tea galore! OK so perhaps this is my favourite of all points. The Japanese consume green tea at almost every meal, and it’s not uncommon for green tea to serve as a replacement to water throughout the day. While this may not be ideal, as consuming tea with certain foods can inhibit nutrient absorption (due to the tannins in the tea), I am a big proponent of Green tea for its overall health (particularly digestive and antioxidant) benefits. Sipping green tea in between meals is certainly a good idea, but just remember it does contain caffeine, so don’t go too crazy too late in the day. I would rather you enjoy a nice steaming cup of miso soup with meals (gah bliss!), and reserve tea-drinking for in between meals.
- The principles of macrobiotics: Perhaps the healthiest part of Japanese cuisine comes from the way food is prepared and served. Food is typically steamed, so that it retains most of its nutritional properties. Few raw foods and fruits are consumed, and if they are, it is in a moderated fashion. The Japanese strongly believe warm foods are necessary for proper digestive function, and I would tend to agree. Food is presented beautifully, and eaten slowly. The principle of macrobiotic eating states that small amounts of each food group should be incorporated into each main meal. A typical macrobiotic meal, for example, would include a small serving of a wholegrain like rice or quinoa or noodles, a small serving of beans or tempeh, some seaweed, fermented veg, and a whole heap of steamed veggies, dressed with tamari or some other fermented sauce. Music to my little Japanese lady ears! The basic principle of Japanese cuisine is to enjoy all food in moderation, and with lots of variety. TICK TICK TICK!
A few things to note about the Japanese diet:
- High reliance on salty foods: Try to not overdo the salt, which can be a common complaint with the Japanese diet, as most meals contain foods high in sodium. This can lead to fluid retention awhich can cause “sloshy” stomach symptoms … not ideal! This shouldn’t be a problem if you’re enjoying moderate amounts (what the Japanese diet is all about!)
- Don’t go cray cray on the tempura! Despite most foods being steamed, the ol’ Japanese tempura tends to be a favourite amongst westerners, as it resembles those devilish golden arches meals. I’m not about restriction so if this type of food appeals to you by all means enjoy it, but just be aware that high levels of saturated fat and cause digestive distress, in addition to a host of other health complications. Remember you’re Japanese now … so practice moderation and balance! 😉
- Don’t go cray on the avocado and high FODMAP fruits: Many Japanese sweet dishes will include high FODMAP stone fruits or apples and pears, so just make sure you’re keeping an eye on this if fructose is your issue. Also, while up to ½ avocado can be enjoyed by some following the low FODMAP diet, anything in excess of this tends to cause digestive distress due to the high levels of polyols. If you are enjoying avocado, best to keep the rest of your ingredients in your meal low FODMAP.
- Remember to keep your water intake up and not rely solely on teas and high-sodium soups like miso, as these can dehydrate you.
- Don’t go too cray on the soy, as it can cause digestive upset when enjoyed in large quantities.
So there you have it. I hope you’ve enjoyed my little obsessional spiel. Some of my favourite Japanese-inspired dishes from the FODMAP Friendly eBook include the Tofu Rice Paper Rolls and Miso Soup. If you are planning a trip to Japan, my absolute number one advice is to venture to Kyoto (perhaps my favourite spot), splurge on some Gyokuro green tea (the most expensive of course L … but it’s worth it!), and travel during Cherry blossom season (March – May), as the scenery is nothing short of breath-taking! If you’re an Aussie looking to incorporate more Japanese-style plant based foods into your diet, my favourite brands are Spiral Foods and Forbidden Foods. If you’re an overseas low FODMAPPer, try iHerb as they’ve got a killer selection!