How I Lost Weight in Japan
It’s the same question from family members, friends, and former co-workers after they see a skinnier me:”How did you lose weight?”
In 2010, I was 138 pounds, still within my BMI for a 63-inch woman.
After I got married (December 2010), I gained around 36 pounds.
Every summer between 2011 and 2014, I yo-yoed between diets and exercise programs. Once winter came, I’d make excuses. “It’s too cold to exercise. I want to eat something hot and heavy. I can start tomorrow.” In the summer of 2014, I hit 2 big roadblocks. My doctor told me I was cruising the line to high blood pressure. The second roadblock came as a surprise to me: I injured my knee, leaving me on crutches for 3 painful weeks (but I still had to drive, grocery shop, cook and clean).
Weight Gain and Weight Loss isn’t about Food or Exercise
At that point, I couldn’t let excuses get in my way. I had to dig deeper than diet and exercise to lose the weight. I looked at why I ate the things I ate and what triggered my snack and chocolate binges.
The first thing that derailed all of my diet or exercise programs was my sweet tooth. Since my childhood, I hid cookies, ate the sweetest ice creams, and regularly chewed gums. I usually ate sweets when I was physically hungry or thirsty. Many times, I mistook hunger for thirst. I started asking myself before I looked for sweets, “Am I actually hungry or thirsty or bored?”
I also had to change my mindset. There really is no shortcut to long-lasting weight management. It’s really a lifestyle change. If I changed my eating habits, I asked myself, “Can I eat like this for a whole year?” If I changed my workout regiment, I asked myself, “Can I workout like this for a whole year?” If I answered “no” to these, I would change my diet and exercises to something I could maintain for at least a year. It was about making new healthy habits.
On top of looking at my cravings, I had to recall what didn’t work for me (but they might work for others).
These didn’t work for me:
- Keeping a food diary or journal.
- Counting calories every day.
- Completely cutting out carbs (i.e. rice, breads, sugars).
- Doing circuit training.
- Having a workout buddy.
I changed my work and home lifestyles to lose weight by:
Staying hydrated throughout the day. Most Japanese people reach for teas at the workplace, so when I didn’t have water, I opted for green tea or jasmine tea freely offered in the office. I downed a glass of water before and after my morning workouts and meals to keep my hunger at bay and keep my body and skin hydrated.
Getting rid of all packaged sweets at my desk and home. In most Japanese offices, there are tables I label “the free snack table”. Anything that gets placed on those tables are free for the taking. The only way to not eat them was to avoid the table. I didn’t completely eliminate sweets. At first, I limited my number of sweets until I felt OK replacing them with fruits and homemade oatmeal bars.
Bringing bananas, smoothies, and small salads to work in case I wanted a snack. Instead of reaching for something on the free snack table, I grabbed something I brought. It was easier, and if I didn’t eat it, it would spoil. Did I mention I hate wasting food?
Using Japanese lunchboxes to package all my meals. Most Japanese lunchboxes hold 48.6 fluid ounces (5.7″x 8.1″ x 1.9″ at Daiso) compared to the American reusable lunchboxes, which carry 221.6 fluid ounces (8″x 5″ x 10″ at the Dollar Tree). With smaller lunchboxes and containers, I tricked my brain into believing that I was eating enough.
Using tamagoyaki, or Japanese omelette, pans. Because it stayed non-sticky for a long time, I didn’t use much oil. I limited my daily egg intake to one egg a day while the omelette pan made that one scrambled egg look bigger and cuter in my Japanese lunchboxes. As of 2021, I don’t eat meat, so now my omelette pan is just another small pan.
Studying the Japanese art of making bento. The best lunchboxes are balanced in not just food but color. The reds in tomatoes should balance the greens from broccoli and spinach. White, brown, and yellow complete the lunch, making it visually stimulating (you eat with your eyes before your mouth) and healthy. (I recommend The Just Bento Cookbook: Everyday Lunches To Go by Makiko Itoh for first timers.)
Taking breaks and finding time to breathe. When I lived in Japan, I saw many people walking and chatting with their co-workers. At work, people talked to each other and traded snacks and drank coffee as the clock ticked away working hours. Doing these things, I realized later, helped decrease stress from daily life.
With all of these things, I learned to control my hunger and sweet tooth.
Refining My Food and Willpower
In April 2015, I still looked big even though I had dropped to 148 pounds. I had done 2 months of running 1.2-mile (2 km) hills 3 times a week, making my legs muscular and thick.
By this point, I had stopped eating cheese, chicken, pork, and beef. From other failed diets, I learned that I couldn’t do without fish and eggs. It was hard visiting my family in the Philippines because everything had sugar or meat alongside several cups of rice per meal. Everyone kept asking, “Did you eat?” then turned around and commented on how fat I was. Later on, my mom told me I was “brave” for not eating certain Filipino foods. Having self discipline was more important to me than having a support network because, let’s face it, I didn’t have a support network. I had to rely on myself.
Becoming pescatarian made me answer to myself, not to others who felt I was being a spoiled brat for refusing food or those who felt inferior because I had declined society’s meat-eating culture. I didn’t feel trapped because I had eliminated certain foods from my diet. I had more energy for my last days in Japan, and the box of clothes that didn’t fit were suddenly too big for my new body.
Exercise and Research: The Last 20%
As daunting as exercise seems, for me, exercise meant attacking the fat on my stomach, legs, and face. Since I was young, I consider exercise as a tool to accomplish a goal like winning a game, relieving stress, or, in this case, losing weight. I did Billy Blanks’s and Jillian Michaels’s workouts on YouTube, and when I got an Xbox 360, I did Nike+. I have to admit I didn’t like running when I started, but since I saw it as a tool towards my target weight and my therapy through some personal baggage, I ended up enjoying my runs 3 times a week.
The other thing I hadn’t done in the past diets was research. Every day was an opportunity to improve my body, health, and overall well being just by Googling questions. “What are some snacks under 150 calories? What are some vegan recipes for bread? How do I make spaghetti sauce from scratch?” I even started reading the back labels of any packaged foods I bought at the store. This is one thing that I’ve found Japanese folks–and folks in general–are afraid to do: ask! I had to go against that grain and find some answers.
Along with my research, questions, and my degree in sports medicine, I created a workout regiment that I could do anywhere. When I injured my knee from running, I was forced to re-think my exercise program. I have bad knees because I tore my ACL, so designing a knee-sensitive workout was crucial to losing the last 10 pounds. I started doing 10- to 20-minute workouts concentrating on my upper body, abs, and thighs using free YouTube channels like Blogiplates (abs and thighs), POPSUGAR Fitness (full-body workouts), and FitnessBlender (full-body workouts). At nighttime or days between more strenuous workouts, I did yoga and pilates. I picked the mornings to work out because it jump-started my metabolism for the rest of the day.
De-stressing and Getting Enough Sleep
The hardest part of weight loss (and keeping it off) was stress. It affects every aspect of life from sleep cycles and quality to diets and concentration. I would crave sweets when I didn’t get 7 hours of sleep. Even when I caught 8 hours of sleeps, I felt trapped in a cycle that included cleaning, cooking, and babying despite my 9-hour workday, class prep at home, and helping my husband alleviate his asthma troubles. To combat the stress of last-minute lesson plans and meals, I kept a schedule for everything so I would have meals ready for the next day, allocate time at work and home for studies (I was taking Japanese), and stick to an exercise regiment. When my husband’s work contract ended (he worked outside of JET), he returned to the U.S., honestly reducing my stress by half–half the meals, half the driving, half the worries.
Creating a routine also helped deal with stress. It’s something I noticed Japanese have down to a tee and has benefits for weight losers. Also, I didn’t have to think hard about what I was supposed to be doing at certain parts of the day. I woke up at 6AM, exercised at 6:15AM before showering, fixed lunch and ate breakfast at 7AM, and went to work at 8AM. At 11AM, I had a mid-morning snack, and at 1:15PM, I had lunch. I usually ate dinner around 5:30 or 6PM, and if I was really hungry, I ate a mid-evening snack at around 7:30PM. 8:30PM meant dance time (yes, I scheduled a time to dance and enjoy my favorite tunes). After dance time came food prep for the next day, cutting veggies, thawing fruits for smoothies, or looking up vegan meals on Allrecipes. If I still felt hungry, I ate low-fat yogurt or a small bowl of granola with low-fat milk. By 10:30PM, I was in bed in my exercise clothes for the next day.
There were also things I didn’t do that Japanese people did such as:
Drinking. I’m not fond of beer or alcohol, but in Japan, drinking is part of the landscape. It hinders fat loss because of its caloric content and its by-products makes our bodies focus on burning those by-products, not stored fat or carbs among other things. Plus, I think it’s expensive compared to the little benefits my body gets out of it (saving money = less stress).
Eating ramen or soba. It’s not that I don’t like noodles–they’re my true loves after my mom’s cooking and pizza–but even a cup of ramen is unhealthy. I traded 100-yen soba for homemade carrot noodles and spinach fettuccine spaghetti.
Using already-made ingredients. Again, I’m not saying Japanese folks don’t use fresh ingredients (that’s more of an American accusation). It’s just that it’s easy to make meals when there are curry roux blocks, bottled sauces, and canned soups to speed up the cooking process. In getting healthier, I used as little canned and bottled products as possible, adopting something close to a clean diet. Even salt and sugar, which were constant reminders of my road to high blood pressure, I traded for lemons and honey.
Eating (white) rice. As most Asian countries eat rice for meal staples, I knew that eating less rice would make me an outsider, even in my culture. In the Philippines, everyone consumed large plates of rice every meal. In Japan, school lunches included big bowls of white rice. I reduced my rice intake to 2 cups a week because I didn’t feel like my body needed more than that. Of course, if I got hungry, I would still eat carbs from extra rice, tortillas, and other plant-based sources.
Total Lost, Lots Gained
When I returned to the States in August 2015, I weighed 119 pounds, a total of 55 pounds lost in a year. Between the end of March 2015 to August 2015, I lost 29 pounds by changing my exercise regiments and diet every 6 weeks, cooking most of my meals using fresh ingredients, drinking lots of water, and de-stressing my life.
My Challenge to You
If you want to change how you look or feel, start a new healthy mindful habit. The hardest things to do are only difficult from the outside, but once you get a taste for more energy and a healthier body, you’ll find yourself in a better club.
Kickstart your resolutions by changing just one meal or adopting one of the things that worked for me. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see a new you within the next month.