Are Japanese People Healthy Because They Drink A Lot of Green Tea?
A cup of green tea to go with your lunch, miss?
When you go to a restaurant and are asked to choose a drink to go with your lunch, there is a drink option that is consistently offered in Japan that is rarely found in the United States: green tea.
It’s not just restaurants, but you can order straight Japanese green tea at your movie theater, your McDonald’s, your local street vendor, at school, Disneyland, and almost every vending machine in the country. Oftentimes you’ll even be given several options for tea — green tea or black tea? Roasted or a blend with oolong? Tea is as varied and ubiquitous as soda would be in the United States. It’s even served in most soda fountains at fast food chains.
In Japan, green tea is not just for the health-conscious
I was not always so used to drinking tea, but when it is the only beverage available in the house and you’re offered it every time you visit a friend or extended family member’s home, you begin to find yourself accustomed to it as a typical beverage.
Could I get you a glass of tea?
As I grew familiar with Japanese green tea as a default drink, I eventually began reaching for it on my own. I bought it at vending machines, at the corner store, and sometimes bought a bottle to go with my lunch.
Is this why Japan’s obesity rate is only at a mere 4.2%? Not entirely, but I think it helps.
When green tea is the default drink, sugar-laden ones aren’t
Before I moved to Japan I used to always ask for soda at restaurants, but as I grew used to green tea as the standard soft drink of choice, soda didn’t even come up as an option in my mind to have with my meals.
It was such a subtle choice, but it was the best health choice I’ve ever made.
I was not surprised to find that the average Japanese person does not drink as much soda as the average American — Americans drink about 5 times more soda — but the interesting point is that living in Japan, choosing to drink green tea over soda is rarely a conscious health choice. In fact, I doubt most Japanese people would cite health features like polyphenols or antioxidant properties as their main reasons for drinking tea — even though these benefits are true — but would instead probably cite two reasons: that they’re accustomed to it and it’s available everywhere.
People in the U.S. drink soda for the same reason people in Japan green tea
It’s hardly news to say that soda is bad for you. Multiple studies have shown that it increases heart disease risk, speeds up aging, is positively correlated with obesity, and can put you at risk for dementia. But even with this widespread knowledge, research has shown that sweetened drinks may be one of the largest sources of calories — even more than white bread — in the standard American diet.
When you live in America, soda is the default drink made to go with every event.
So why do we drink so much soda in America when we know it’s not great for us? It’s for the same reason so many people living in Japan drink green tea — because it is custom and available everywhere.
Soda is in school vending machines, at the workplace, and available for cheap at every gas station. They promote it in jumbo sizes at the movie theater, in restaurants, and every kind of sports game. When you live in America, soda is the default drink made to go with every event.
Or should I say, was the default drink?
But I see that American attitudes toward soda are slowly changing — soda consumption reached a 30-year low in 2016, and is continuing to drop. Consumers are demanding healthier alternatives and are spending more money on unsweetened teas, fruit-flavored waters, no additives, and low-to-no sugar beverages.
In the city of Philadelphia, one of the few U.S. cities which has recently successfully passed a soda tax, soda consumption among teenagers had dropped by 24% from 2007 to 2013, and during the same time frame obesity among children 5–18 years old had continually declined. Of course this is correlation data, not causation, but one that I believe shouldn’t be ignored.
Life-changing habits are rarely drastic
It is quite common for reducing soda intake to be a crucial first step for many individuals’ health journeys — one man lost over 20 pounds and brought his blood pressure back to normal by dropping his daily soda habit, another woman lost 30 pounds in 3 months, and there are many others with similar stories.
I’m not saying Japanese people never drink soda or that drinking green tea is the cure to all of our health woes, but when you begin to see the healthy choice as convention and not the exception, it becomes a habit to live healthfully. A small movement to conventionalize drinking less sugar-laden drinks, choosing water, or making an unsweetened green tea the standard to go with a meal, is one I think can go a long way in helping everyone improve their quality of life.
For while these are not drastic habits, they can be life changing.