Monday, 27 February 2012

The Izu Life: Losing Weight in Japan.

It happens to the best of us. You are dragging yourself through an unfortunate spout of culture-shock-related depression and you turn to the ice cream tub for solace. Winter strikes with vengeance and a natural instinct kicks in encouraging you to consume more calories in order to produce more body heat. Unfortunately, you team this with extended periods under the kotatsu instead of healthy exercise. Furthermore, before you know it Christmas and (for some of you) Thanksgiving have come to pass and you are justifying that extra slice of pie because it is a special occasion (my mother always insisted that no one is on a diet on Christmas Day). And Japan’s abundance of sugar-loaded sweets does not exactly mitigate the problem. So what am I doing about it? Read on to find out…

I had actually decided before coming to Japan that it would be next to impossible to continue to lose weight. I was already in the process of exercising regularly and eating healthily in order to drop a few unsightly kilos. But I knew that after I got to Japan, I would not be able to find all the same brands of healthy foods to sustain my healthy diet. Heck, they don’t even sell basic things like brown rice and wholegrain bread in Japanese supermarkets. I knew it was going to be an uphill battle so I did the worst thing I could have possibly done: I gave up.

Its true that Japanese foods tend to be higher in calories. And the bakeries in Japan make it incredibly difficult to resist a sweet bun here or there. But after returning to Japan from my Christmas holiday and finding that somewhere, somehow, I had stacked on an extra 5 kilos(!!), I knew things had to change. For me it is important to look and feel good but most importantly, to be healthy. And currently, my BMI is just a little too high to be considered within the normal healthy weight range. So I decided I had to take more effort.

This I found to be very difficult in Japan. I live next-door to my workplace, a high school. For a while after my arrival in Japan, I got up at 5am and jogged regularly in the morning to keep up with my exercise. What I had not anticipated was that many of my students also get up at 5am and walk to school so they can… I don’t know… stare at the black board for 4 hours before class starts at 9am? So suddenly being confronted by my students walking along the same road I live on while sweaty and huffy-puffy was a bit of a turn off for exercise.

Sure, I could have joined a gym. There is one nearby actually. But I am trying to save money for traveling and I prefer jogging to whatever it is people to at gyms so I decided to find a way to jog without losing my dignity. First, I switched from my conspicuously pink jogging outfit to an all-black ensemble. I also switched the time I jog to twilight. This reduces my visibility greatly. Next, I decided to bike five minutes away from the area I live to a popular place for jogging—along the Kano-gawa (Kano River)—where I could jog in peace without the embarrassing encounters with students.

I found some great diet ideas and tips for exercise routines that you can do in the privacy of your own home here.

The Japanese are not particularly fond of diet foods. It seems that most people who are trying to lose weight just eat quantitatively less. A British friend told me she went to lunch with her Japanese friend in Tokyo and after a few bites, the Japanese friend said she was finished eating. Shocked, my British friend asked her what the deal was, for she had been complaining that she was “starving” not ten minutes ago. “I’m trying to lose weight,” the (skinny, bird-like) Japanese friend had explained.

But hope is not lost. Recently, Max Value Supermarket’s home brand ‘Topvalue’ has released a low-calorie range of diet bars and pre-prepared meals. They are pretty easy to spot; just check the health foods section and the freezer section for the red and white Topvalue logo. The products usually have a calorie count stamped proudly on the packaging to illustrate its point.

Also, low-calorie foods are available from most supermarkets: konnyaku, fruits and vegetables (particularly celery, cabbage), soba noodles and green tea. On the topic of green tea, it is said to have many health benefits including an ingredient which helps burn calories and maintain body heat. A study performed at the University of Birmingham showed that average fat oxidation rates were 17% higher after ingestion of green tea extract. Most Japanese people on average consume a cup of green tea everyday. As well as being loaded with antioxidants, there are many more health benefits to drinking green tea so I encourage you to do some research of your own and discover it for yourself.  

There’s An App For That
It’s true that there are many apps available to assist with weight loss but I would like to share a couple of my top picks.

MyFitnessPal (free) is a calorie-counting tool that calculates your total intake of calories with just a few taps of the screen. Just answer a few questions during start-up and the app can calculate how many calories you should be consuming daily in order to reach your goal weight. There is an extensive library of foods (with nutritional information) that you use to add to your ‘Food Diary’ when calculating calories. The app will also subtract from your total calorie intake the amount burned during exercise. When used accurately, the app can predict at the end of each day what weight you will be at in 5 weeks time (which for me works as incentive trying to get this number as low as possible everyday). I found this app to be very encouraging as all the data is laid out accurately, encouraging you to make conscious healthy decisions. Case in point; on the first day of downloading this app, I was going to eat a melon pan (443 calories) but after reviewing my daily progress on the app, I decided it was best not to and put the melon pan down. I never put the melon pan down! It monitors your weight loss and allows you to connect with friends and post updates on your progress to them.

TargetWeight (free) monitors your weight loss and lays out the data for you in easy-to-read graphs and stats. It gives you your current BMI (based on the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organization) and shows you how many kilos you need to lose to reach your target BMI. The app can be password protected and you can opt to have the number of kilos you need to lose displayed on your home screen within the app’s icon (inside a small red circle) without having the app open. There is also a TargetWeight for Teens available for free download.

I have been dieting and exercising daily for about a week and a half now and already I have lost 2 kilos! Wish me luck! Thank you for reading and I hope you found this post useful!

What are your top diet and exercise tips?

Images courtesy of Ernst Moeksis, D Sharon Pruitt, and miss karen (all Flickr, Creative Commons).

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