Are Chopsticks the Secret Behind Japan’s Low Obesity Rates? cover

Are Chopsticks the Secret Behind Japan’s Low Obesity Rates?

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As my wife and I finish up the first week of our trip through Japan, one thing is relatively clear; few Japanese have a weight problem.
I can’t help but notice that eating with chopsticks tends to slow down the pace at which you can consume your meal. This is especially true when eating rice, noodles, and the like.
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Are Chopsticks the Secret Behind Japan’s Low Obesity Rates?

As my wife and I finish up the first week of our trip through Japan, one thing is relatively clear; few Japanese have a weight problem. In fact, most recent estimates suggest just 3.6% of the population has a body mass index (BMI) over 30 kg/m2.

During each of the meals we’ve had since arriving – first in Tokyo and now in Kyoto – we’ve had to rely on the use of chopsticks rather than typical Western silverware. Although our chopstick skills are top notch by Western standards (we frequent Toronto’s massive and varied Chinatown), I can’t help but notice that eating with chopsticks tends to slow down the pace at which you can consume your meal. This is especially true when eating rice, noodles, and the like.

Thus, I began to wonder: are chopsticks part of the reason the Japanese are so lean?

Thankfully, some research by Wansink and colleagues has already looked into this question.

In a unique 2006 study, 85 nutrition experts attending an ice cream social were randomly given either a smaller (17 oz) or a larger (34 oz) bowl and either a smaller (2 oz) or larger (3 oz) ice cream scoop (2×2 design).

When given a larger bowl, participants served themselves 31.0% more. The use of a larger spoon was associated with a 14.5% increase in serving size, although this finding was not statistically significant.

This finding would seem to suggest that using a smaller, and thus less efficient utensil will potentially reduce the volume of food ingested.

In another study, the same investigators assessed the relationship between eating behaviours and weight at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet in the US.

Here is how this study was conducted: 22 trained observers coded the behavior of 213 randomly selected patrons at 11 all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet restaurants. Observers sat creepi in the restaurant and recorded the behavior of patrons in the restaurant. They also visually estimated the age, height and weight of the buffet diners (a definite limitation of the methodology).

And what did they find?

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

For one, patrons with higher BMI levels were significantly less likely to use chopsticks versus forks. Conversely, the same diners were more likely to utilize larger plates and choose a seating position that provided a direct view of the buffet.

While the evidence is far from conclusive on the matter, there is at least some emerging evidence to suggest that having a less efficient tool with which you consume your food, such as chopsticks, may be associated with reduced portion sizes and lower body weight.

If your ability with chopsticks is very limited, it would certainly make sense that you would end up consuming less food when being forced to use them over your regular cutlery. The slower rate of consumption would allow those satiety signals to kick in before your plate was cleared, halting further food intake.

It may be a reach to control portion size this way, but could be worth the try. At a minimum, your newly-developed chopstick dexterity will endear you to Japanese locals if you ever choose to travel the region.