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Diabetes, low-carb diets, etc. in Japan

v. gautam

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I am not being at all disrespectful wnen I ask this question. As diabetic myself, I often wonder what people raised in intensely rice or carbohydrate based food cultures [such as my own Indian Bengali one] do to adapt to a low-carbohydrate regime?

[Although, one must say that 21st century Japan with its 'prosperity' and range of foods available to buyers is very different from the Japan of the 1950s; still, the rural areas must be a bit cautious about pesto and such 'foreign' foods, would they not?]

Japanese short grain rices, mochi, udon, flour based noodles of most types etc. [but probably not buckwheat flour or shirataki] definitely have a prohibitive glycemic index. These being the heart of say, a middle-class, or affordable diet, with what foods would a diabetic manage to celebrate the changing seasons?

In the US, it seems that certain types of proteins (both animal and vegetable), fruits and vegetables are considerably cheaper than similar types of things in Japan that might be suitable for diabetics. I may be horriibly wrong (I hope so). Also, one nowadays is told to avoid consuming too great a quantity of soy protein or products. So what are the alternatives? Thanks for understanding.


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At the risk of getting WAY off topic, Japanese people do have a genetic tendency to develop Type II diabetes at much lower levels of obesity than some other races.

At the same time, Japanese rice seems not to behave exactly like other short-grained rice. This site is not the last bastion of scientific reliability, but shows the general tendency of high-amylose rices to have a much lower glycemic index.

I know some mild diabetics who can control their condition through diet, and one severe diabetic who has very badly damaged kidneys and has lost a leg. They all eat rice - just less of it, and often with the husk only partly polished away.

The hardest thing for Japanese diabetics seems to be replacing the high-sugar elements of the "sweet and salty" tradition in seasoning. Mostly the advice is to use soy sauce and vinegar rather than soy sauce and sugar. Well-made mirin also has a lower impact on blood sugar.

Udon is a hard food for diabetics, but 100% buckwheat flour soba is an excellent choice.

As for pesto in the country...basil is related to shiso, so it's not too hard a taste for Japanese to get used to!

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I went on a low-carb diet here in Japan during the height of the Atkins and South Beach Diet craze and it was easy.

I also found konnyaku and konnyaku-based food like shirataki to be a reasonable substitute for noodles. In fact, I recently noticed konnyaku "ramen" and "spaghetti" being sold that supposedly tastes authentic. Harusame glass noodles made from mung beans are also relatively low in carbs.

Why is it bad to eat soybeans? Japanese people have been eating soybean and soybean-based foods for centuries and they have some of the longest lifespans. I would buy tons of frozen edamame, boiled soybeans, natto, tofu, okara (soybean shells and scraps -- very high in fiber). Other beans like azuki, red and white kidney beans, and broad beans are also cheap and abundant. White kidney beans also supposedly inhibits the body's intake of carbohydrates as well.

If you buy vegetables in season, they are not expensive at all. In fact, they can be ridiculously cheap. I would go down to the local cheap gekiyasu-supermarket and buy lots of mushrooms, sato-imo roots, potatoes and pumpkins in the fall and winter... whatever was in season and cheap. I would also buy lots of frozen mixed veggies (green giant is my favorite brand) -- they cost about as much as in New York. Although my skin turned yellow from eating too much corn and carrots, hehehe :rolleyes:

Being Japan and all, fresh fish can be bought for remarkably cheap prices. Again, depending on the season. Tai in the spring. Eels, octopus and squid in the summer. Salmon and sanma in the fall. Tuna and yellowtail in the winter. Cheap shrimp all year round. Its a seafood-lovers paradise.

Eggs are also dirt cheap. Used to eat like a dozen eggs a day during my hardcore weightlifting days. Supplemented by bargain-basement canned tuna and miso mackerel.

Recently I joined the CostCo Wholesale store in Amagasaki and every now and then, buy like tremendous bags of bulk frozen chicken breasts.

Costco rules. :wub:

Edited by kinkistyle (log)
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My husband and my 10 year old daughter both have Type 1 diabetes, and we eat (and I cook) Japanese food quite often. As Americans, we probably eat a lower proportion of rice or noodles than most Japanese, so a high carb count for us is less of an issue from those foods.

As for sweetness in Japanese foods, I don't know if it's ever used in Japan but... recently I began experimenting with substituting the artificial sweetener Splenda (sucralose) for sugar in some Japanese dishes. It won't work in recipes where sugar is required to glaze the foods, but I did use it successfully in goma-ae dressing.


"She sells shiso by the seashore."

My eGullet Foodblog: A Tropical Christmas in the Suburbs

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I lost a LOT of weight following the Sugarbusters plan a few years back, and kept it off for a couple of years, which proves that it's do-able with a Japanese way of eating (put it all back thanks to poor eating, high stress, lack of sleep and absolutely no exercise :hmmm: ).

I will respond more specifically when work is less busy, but I found I could make it work in Japan even with a soybean allergy :smile: , and my friend with the severely diabetic husband is a keen cook, so we have often discussed the issues involved.

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You can buy some sugar substitutes here, but I think they are not that widely used. The emphasis is very much on training yourself to eat less sweet food - even diabetic books include desserts made with sugar, but serving sizes are tiny and sugar is used very lightly.

Seasonings - in Japan the high sugar use and the heavy-handed use of salt and soy sauce pack a double punch, so diabetics are recommended to use vinegar, but also to use fuller-flavored seasonings such as miso instead of soy sauce, and to use a little soy sauce or salt at the end of cooking instead of adding it earlier, so that there is some salt when the food is first put in the mouth, but the entire dish is not permeated with high levels of salt or soy sauce.

Low-insulin diets in Japan recommend sweet potatoes - despite a high calorie content, they take ages to digest. However, as a main starch rather than a snack, for many Japanese they evoke images of wartime food shortages.

Rice servings are around 100g cooked rice per serving. Apart making takikomi rice or maze-gohan (vegetables stirred in after cooking), occasionally Chinese-style congees are recommended, but they are digested rapidly despite being low-calorie, so are not used by diabetics as much as one would expect).

Looking at my Japanese diabetic cooking book (a good thing to own even for non-diabetics), those who need high protein rather than low protein diets are encouraged to eat more tofu and use dairy products as dressings or in miso soups etc.

Sashimi is of course a great way to get lean protein, and in Japan has the advantage of being easy to buy in single-serving packs, so the diabetic family member can have sashimi while everybody else eats something cheaper.

Nabe are also a good way to get veges and protein without high calories and starch/sugar. Nabe is the recommended dish for diabetics when eating out (otherwise, get a teishoku set which includes soup, rice, and vegetables).

Conversely, people who are on restricted protein/high energy diets are encouraged to eat their vegetables as tempura.

Seaweeds and fungi are recommended to increase fiber (slow down rate of digestion).

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