Japan, Low-Fat Paradise, Has No Calorie Limits on School Lunches

A recent article from the Washington Post is about Japan’s school lunch program. It sounds like a great program, actually. But because anything about our current moral panic seems to draw eyeballs, of course BMI must be discussed:

Japan’s system has an envious payoff — its kids are relatively healthy. According to government data, Japan’s child obesity rate, always among the world’s lowest, has declined for each of the past six years, a period during which the country has expanded its dietary education program.

Based on the description of the program, it probably is healthier than most school lunch programs in the world. But that may or may not be contributing to the disparity between Japanese and U.S. obesity rates. There are an awful lot of differences between the two countries (both genetic and in the social environment), and lunch is only one meal a day. But it seems that just about any difference between two populations with different BMI distributions is pounced on breathlessly by the media. “Could this explain the difference?” the headlines ask. If the answer is, “Maybe…” it’s fit to print!

At least there’s no reason to think that our new, problematic calorie limits for school lunches are necessary, even for people who think that school lunches are the key to returning our BMIs to those of The Golden Age:

Though Japan’s central government sets basic nutritional guidelines, regulation is surprisingly minimal. Not every meal has to meet precise caloric guidelines. At many schools, a nutritionist draws up the recipes — no bureaucratic interference. Central government officials say they have ultimate authority to step in if schools are serving unhealthy food, but they can’t think of any examples where that actually happened.

It also sounds delicious:

Officials at Adachi Ward, in northern Tokyo, say they run a “fairly standard” school lunch program in the ward’s 71 elementary schools and 37 middle schools. And because this is food-obsessed Japan, those standard meals are restaurant-worthy; in fact, the ward publishes a full-color cookbook based on its best school meals.

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One Response to Japan, Low-Fat Paradise, Has No Calorie Limits on School Lunches

  1. T. says:

    Well, that article and those pictures brought back memories. But I would take the whole thing with a healthy grain of shio (salt). I lived in Japan for a year and worked at a middle school, where I ate school lunch every day. In my opinion they have definitely succeeded in the delicious part of the meal — I left my post in 2010 and I STILL talk about the meals we had. They were delicious, and incredibly varied. While there were some regularly-repeated items on the menu (there were only a few side dishes and they got repeated often), for the most part there was a new entree almost every single day. The article is correct that there is usually not a dessert, and when there is it’s usually fruit. Real desserts were reserved for special occasions and were served in small portions.

    But I think it’s also important to remember that not all school districts in Japan participate in these kinds of lunch programs. About three quarters of elementary and middle schools do, but at least in my area none of the high schools did and I was told that this is be cause high school is optional while elementary and middle school are mandatory.

    I would also point out a few things the article doesn’t mention for some reason:
    – In my area, school lunches DID have a calorie goal/limit. For the middle school kids, that limit was 1000 calories. Most meals came within a couple hundred calories of that.
    – White bread is just as common as rice as a side dish.
    – Fried food wasn’t THAT rare. We had karaage (more than one piece per person). We had croquettes (which as far as I could tell are fried). The very first meal I had was fried squid rings. There was also plenty of food that many Westerners would consider unhealthy, like the potatoes we had that were smothered in cheese and had a few vegetables sprinkled in for good measure.
    – School lunch was optional. I was told that, barring food allergies, the majority of families pay for it because it’s convenient.
    – The amount of food provided to a class is measured out VERY carefully. Generally speaking, there was enough food for every student to have ONE serving of each item, however a serving was defined (e.g. one roll, one scoop of rice, one small piece of fish, a certain number of squid rings). While this does limit the amount of food waste, it doesn’t eliminate it — after meals the communal table in the teachers’ room was often filled with extra food that wasn’t eaten in classes, and the teachers were allowed to eat it at school or take it home. The kids aren’t allowed to have seconds, even when there is extra food, and sometimes that meant kids would go hungry. I had a few students complain to me that they were still hungry literally five minutes after finishing lunch, and that was the ONLY meal or snack they were going to get until dinner.
    – The school lunch menus at my school were usually decorated with general health tips, which is awesome, except when they include anti-fat fear mongering (which they frequently did).

    Anyway, my point is that the article isn’t wrong per se, but I don’t think it provides a very nuanced view of school lunches in Japan and while I don’t think the Japanese lunch model would be a bad one to follow overall, it needs some tweaking.

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