As we mentioned last week, there is still a question which must be answered: if people in Hong Kong and Japan eat tons of high-carb white rice as well a lot of sweets, why don’t they have the same obesity problem we have in America?
We believe the answer lies in calories in vs. calories out. All weight gain or loss is directly tied to this formula. If you eat more than you burn, you put on weight. If you burn more than you consume, your friends start throwing veiled compliments like, “My God, Stan. Where’s the rest of you?”
There are several factors we observed on our trip that we think dramatically reduce the calories taken in on a typical day in Asia. We will begin with a factor that’s nearly absent in America: surgical masks. Huge numbers of people on the street in Hong Kong and Japan wear surgical masks everywhere they go. To Americans, it gives the streetscape a uniquely post-apocalyptic feel. At the same time, we must admit that it makes snacking more difficult.
Factor 1: Surgical Masks. Americans find it disconcerting to see someone donning a surgical mask outside of an operating room. Even in a hospital corridor, if someone leaves his or her mask in place, rather that pushing it down below the chin, we edge away. Our immediate assumption is that this person is a carrier of some hideous plague and if we get too close we’ll end up quarantined and living for months in a plastic tent surrounded by armed goons from the Center For Disease Control. This is doubly true if a person wears a surgical mask on a public street. Most of us cross to avoid them with the same urgency we’d apply to someone wearing a ski mask. Our assumption is that these people are either contagious or up to no good.
The response in Hong Kong and Japan could not be more different. People smiled and nodded the masked passed by. On the train they sat next to the masked without hesitation. We watched people in masks walk into banks without prompting security guards to draw their guns. It’s a little like stepping into a comic book world in which masked individuals are seen as heroes who, for reasons beyond their control, must hide their true identity while fighting crime on the street.
To be fair, surgical masks are far more common in Japan than they are in Hong Kong. In Japan, masks are everywhere. In Hong Kong they are just rare enough that we got excited every time we saw one. Nonetheless, it was clear in both places that wearing a surgical mask in public is completely socially acceptable. Masks first became common during the SARS outbreak in 2002. Swine Flu solidified their place as a fashion accessory. The only time we saw people remove the masks in public was to smoke cigarettes. One of our great regrets from the trip is that we never thought to take video of someone pulling down his or her mask just long enough to take a drag on a cigarette. It would’ve been fun to capture the irony of someone wearing a mask to defend themselves from pollution and disease deliberately removing that protection in order to inhale a carcinogen.
We won’t wade into the argument over whether or not mask actually prevent flus or other sickness—the Canadian Department of Health says “no”, mask manufacturers say “yes”—but we will say with absolute certainty: if your nose and mouth are covered you’re definitely not snacking. That cannot but help to reduce your caloric intake.
Factor 2: A Shortage of Processed Foods. As far as we observed, people in Japan and Hong Kong eat very few highly processed foods. We could easily identify the ingredients in almost everything we were served. This was particularly true of street food, which is what people use for between-meal snacks. Since processed foods are some of the most calorically dense foods available, avoiding them eliminates some of the worst caloric offenders.
To illustrate this point, we’ll describe some of the foods offered at stands at outdoor festivals and fairs. We were in Japan during the annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Parks and squares were filled with musical performances, carnival games and even small scale rides. Vendors lined the outside edge hawking snacks. Some of these foods were similar to foods that would be found at a typical outdoor fair in the United States. Ice cream and hotdogs were always available. But the bulk of the food would be completely unfamiliar to an American. We’ve already written about Fish-On-A-Stick. Also available in on-a-stick form were squid, fish balls, pork sausages, gummy balls of teriyaki wheat gluten, huge chunks of tender bamboo and giant pickles. There were also buns filled with sweet bean paste, eel, squid and pork. And finally, there were the battered deep fried specialties including chicken and shrimp tempura, squid dumplings and fish-shaped pies which, oddly, were only sometimes filled with fish.
This may not sound particularly healthy. There are obviously more simple carbs here than we recommend on DYC. However, if you compare Japanese fair cuisine to American fair cuisine it becomes instantly obvious that the Japanese version of snack food is far healthier and lower calorie. We fry up whole snickers bars, Twinkies and even sticks of butter alongside our chicken nuggets and corndogs. It is worth pointing out that the Japanese battered and fried tempura is far less processed than our American version. Tempura chicken is made from actual chicken rather than reconstituted poultry paste. Its authenticity is verified by bits of skin and gristle. More importantly, the Japanese tempura contains none of the sugar and other fillers that are common in the American variety. This makes little difference in calories, but it does speak volumes about the Japanese preference for less processed, more recognizable foods.
We’ve been unsuccessfully racking our minds, trying to come up with anything as healthy as Fish-On-A-Stick available in an average American fairground. We’ve been equally unsuccessful in finding the Japanese equivalent to the 1600 calorie Donut Burger. When it comes to eating at the fair, the Japanese clearly allow themselves a little treat. By contrast, Americans seem to take any festival as an excuse to attempt culinary suicide.
While we have spoken largely about the street food in Japan, the same held true in Hong Kong. Everything we saw was instantly identifiable as to the animal it came from. In most cases, it was barely processed at all. At time, it was unadulterated to a shocking degree.
Factor 3: Portion Sizes. The third factor that allows Asian countries to eat lots of carbs without growing obese is portion sizes. We were never once served anything close to an American-sized portion. The photograph below is of our dessert at a fancy meal in Kyoto, Japan. It was a cake made from bean paste. It was unbelievably sweet, but it was also smaller than the amuse bouche at most San Francisco restaurants. Serve a dessert this size in the Midwest and expect a full on riot, complete with burning buildings and overturned police cars.
Factor 4: No Mixers. Our observations were limited, but as far as we can tell people in Asia save up all of their drinking and do it at once. In other words, people don’t drink very much, but when they drink they drink very much. We watched a guy, over the course of dinner, down an entire liter bottle of Soju, which is essentially vodka made from sweet potatoes. The more he drank, the more gregarious he became and the more he expressed his love for us; though it’s equally possibly “I love America” were the only English words he knew. It is not an uncommon site to see Salarymen staggering and singing down their way down the street. We saw one gentleman in Kyoto who was no longer wearing a shirt or tie beneath his blue suit coat. His friends repeatedly slapped his bare chest as they all stumbled toward the subway.
We would never endorse binge drinking. It’s unhealthy and dangerous. But we were taken by the fact that outside of hotel tourist bars we saw no one drinking mixed drinks. All of the alcohol we saw consumed was straight-up. Sake is higher in alcohol and calories than the equivalent quantity of beer or wine. One small bottle contains around 450 calories. However, that’s a lot of sake for far fewer calories than would be found in a similarly sized margarita. By sticking to the No Mixer Rule, people in Japan and Hong Kong avoid a lot of unneeded calories. Of course, avoiding mixers will do nothing to help you locate your lost shirt and tie.
There a million diets recommending eating and drinking anything you want as long as you stick to tiny portions. We have no doubt this works because it reduces overall calories, but in America it’s nearly impossible to sustain. A serving of rice at any of the meals we had on our trip was around half a cup. A serving of rice at any meal we’ve had in America can be measured between one cup and two. We’ve developed a food culture in America whereby small portions look ungenerous. As a result, most restaurants err to the side of generosity and mound food onto the plate. Oddly, the less healthy a food the larger the portion. French fries always come piled high. As do mashed potatoes, pastas and desserts. By contrast, a side of zucchini may be limited to a couple of slices. We routinely ask for extra vegetables in restaurants in America. The point is that diets that focus on portion size require a huge amount of discipline to overcome this custom. In Asia, a small portion diet would be easy. In America it’s the equivalent of trying to take a leisurely jog through a minefield; the entire landscape has been purposefully designed to make your task harder.
This why we love DYC. In the end, DYC is just another method for controlling calories, but it’s far easier to sustain. As long as we stick to the Food List, we don’t have to obsess about portions. We can continue drinking alcohol. And we continue to slowly lose weight. This is a good thing in a country hell-bent on pushing us all toward culinary suicide.
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