Japanese sweets

Why are Japanese People so Slim, even though Japanese Sweets Taste Super Sweet?

by: Hideo Takahashi



Time to read 5 min

Japanese cuisine is appreciated worldwide for its exquisite flavors, diverse dishes, and unique cultural significance. Among its culinary offerings, wagashi (Japanese sweets) stand out for their delicate beauty and rich flavors. It is surprising how, despite the wide variety of meals and sweets that the Japanese tradition offers, Japanese people are generally known for being slim: this is due to multiple factors, including dietary habits, lifestyle, and culture.

Obesity rate in Japan

Slim Japanese

According to the OECD health statistics in 2017(*1), only 3.7% of the population are obese (meaning their BMI is higher than 30), and 20.1% are overweight (BMI between 25 and 30). These values are way lower than the average obesity and heavy rates in the world: in the US, for example, the obesity rate is 38.2%, while the overweight rate is 31.9%.

Factors contributing to low obesity rates in Japan

Japanese people are, in general, more likely to be underweight than to be obese: a statistic research run by the Japanese National Institute of Health and Nutrition in 2019 (*2) has demonstrated that the underweight rate (BMI lower than 18.5) is 3.9% for men and 11.5% for women, with a peak in young women in their early 20s: for them, the underweight rate is 20.7%. What is this due to? 

  • First, traditional Japanese ingredients are rich in nutrients and favor a correct metabolism, as seen in the next paragraph. 
  • Second, culture is another essential factor: Japanese people are taught to appreciate every bite and embrace simplicity. Quality is more important than quantity, allowing it to stay within the calories needed.

Exploring the healthiness of Japanese Sweets

Japanese cuisine is well known for being a healthy and balanced diet, thanks to the wide range of natural ingredients it contains: seafood is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, fermented foods like miso and natto provide probiotics, and the use of rice as a staple allows the consumption of a good amount of carbohydrates that have a lower glycemic index compared to other grains.

Characteristics of Japanese Sweets and their contribution to health

Traditional Japanese sweets, known as "wagashi," are appreciated by people worldwide for their deliciousness and uniqueness. They are very popular and often consumed as treats daily and during special occasions. It is impressive how the large consumption of these sweets doesn't interfere with the low obesity rate in Japan. But how is it possible? Japanese sweets are known for healthiness: 

  • They tend to be lower in sugar and fat
  • Consumed with tea with antioxidizing properties
  • Their cultural significance encourages moderation

Let's look at the characteristics that make them distinct from Western-style sweets.

Ingredients and nutritional awareness

Traditional Japanese sweets are often made from natural components such as glutinous rice, azuki beans, fruits, sweet potatoes, and agar-agar. They are chosen not only for their flavors but also for their nutritional properties: for example, "anmitsu" is a wagashi made with agar-agar, a plant-based gelatin substitute with no fats, carbohydrates, or proteins. Although it has almost zero calories, it is rich in iron and magnesium and contains fibers, which help digestion. Using agar-agar reduces the need for animal-based gelatins and fat commonly found in Western sweets. "Daifuku" is another popular Japanese sweet: azuki bean paste wrapped in a small mochi made of glutinous rice. Azuki beans are naturally rich in iron, dietary fibers, and proteins. Sweet potatoes are often present in wagashi, too; they are appreciated for containing high amounts of vitamins A and C. All these wagashi contain ingredients with low amounts of fats and glucose and yet have a natural sweet flavor: this reduces the amount of sugar in Japanese sweets without compromising their unique sweetness.

Tea's role in supporting Japanese healthy lifestyle

Japanese green tea

Another factor that contributes to the low obesity rate in Japan is the daily consumption of tea: it is primarily appreciated in all its varieties, both during meals and with sweets. Japanese green tea is known for its numerous health benefits, and its consumption aligns with critical factors that allow a reduced consumption of calories: 

  • Metabolism boost: green tea contains compounds like caffeine and catechins, which are known to enhance metabolism. This means that the body can burn calories more efficiently. 
  • Fat oxidation: the catechins in green tea have been shown to aid in fat oxidation, facilitating the burning of stored fat. This can contribute to weight loss and maintenance. 
  • Antioxidant properties: Japanese tea is rich in antioxidants, which support overall health and may reduce the risk of obesity-related conditions. Keeping the body healthy can aid in maintaining a healthy weight. 
  • Appetite control: green tea can promote a feeling of fullness, reducing the likelihood of overeating. It can also help control blood sugar levels, preventing sudden spikes and crashes that lead to unhealthy food cravings. 
  • Mindful eating: in Japan, enjoying tea, especially during traditional tea ceremonies, promotes mindfulness and an appreciation for simple pleasures. This cultural aspect encourages a sense of satisfaction and contentment with moderate portions and balanced eating.

Mindful eating in Japanese culture


Japanese sweets have a deep cultural significance, often tied to traditional ceremonies and rituals. One of the most well-known is the "chanoyu," or Japanese tea ceremony, which emphasizes aesthetics, harmony, and the appreciation of simplicity and natural beauty. In this context, wagashi are typically served with tea, creating a harmonious balance between the sweetness of the sweets and the bitterness of the tea. The cultural importance of these rituals reinforces the idea that sweets should be enjoyed in moderation as part of a balanced diet: they promote mindfulness and encourage participants to savor each bite. This helps prevent overindulgence and allows one to appreciate the artistry in each sweet. This focus on mindful eating aligns with the broader Japanese cultural value of respecting and enjoying food. 

All these aspects of Japanese cuisine keep the Japanese obesity rate one of the world's lowest. The combination of natural and low-fat ingredients, consumption of green tea, small portion sizes, cultural significance, and their impact on overall dietary choices collectively contribute to the low obesity rate in Japan. While Japanese sweets are just one element in the broader equation of Japan's low obesity rate, they symbolize a culture that values balance, moderation, and daily appreciation of dietary habits. In a world increasingly challenged by obesity-related health issues, the Japanese approach to sweets offers a lesson in how cultural values and traditional dietary practices can positively impact health and well-being.

Author Bio

Hideo Takahashi

Hideo Takahashi

Born in Tokyo in 1990. Founder of JAPANBITE and CEO of its operating company, GRID Start, Ltd.
Established the company in 2023 after being a consultant of IT infrastructure.
Inspired by his travels to 15 countries and a deep love for Japanese food, he launched a service to contribute to small local Japanese manufacturers' businesses and allow many foreigners to enjoy Japanese culture.

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