Daily life

Dealing with underweight in Japan

How the organisation behind a cafeteria at my Japanese university is helping me gain weight

It’s no secret that I could use some more fat and muscle, and so far, I’ve never been able to properly overcome this small issue. However, last week, an unexpected opportunity to deal with my underweight presented itself during lunch at my faculty cafeteria.

As I sat down at a free spot next to the glass separating the cafeteria from its outdoor terrace, I noticed some people wearing orange bands setting up a stall, banners and desks to create an “Eating Habits Advice Corner” [own translation].

Many people know that Japan is strongly associated with healthy and long living. In a previous post, I wrote that I was somewhat baffled by the annual medical examination that is done at universities and workplaces, and I was a bit critical of some parts of the check-up. Nonetheless, there’s no denying in the benefits of having your health closely monitored. When I saw this happening, I decided to take part in another “great Japanese phenomenon” that helps students stay healthy and in my case, deal with underweight.

As its name suggests, the purpose was to give advice on one’s nutritional habits based on some kind of interview or analysis. The price of a full examination to determine one’s eating habits and personalised advice was announced as “FREE” for subscribers to a certain medical insurance, or just ¥500 (€3,91) for non-subscribers. I began wondering who was responsible for setting up such a great initiative: the Japanese government, Kobe City, the university or even someone else? It appeared to be an initiative from the University Co-op, Daigaku seikyō 大学生協 in Japanese – the same organisation that runs the cafeteria. I don’t remember having heard of Belgian cafeterias organising such a thing…

It’s unbelievable how many body parameters were checked before a conclusion on my eating habits and metabolism was made. They didn’t only check the ordinary things, such as bodyweight, calculate my BMI and ask about my eating habits; they did so much more!

  • Using a medical slip of paper (and some of my spit), they checked the pollution rate of my lungs (“Slightly polluted, beware of smokers around you!”).
  • Using a patch, they checked my alcohol resistance (“Drink-a-lot Type. You are very resistant and in the danger zone! People like you should especially be wary of not drinking too much – it really isn’t healthy!”).
  • With a digital device, my skin moisture and flexibility was measured (moisture good, flexibility: to be improved).
  • With a second device, they measured my body fat ratio (11%, too low).
  • Blood pressure (a little on the high side, but no further remarks were made).
  • With another device, they measured the thickness of the fat under the skin of my upper arm (0,1cm – very thin).
  • Somehow along the way, they also measured my muscle mass (too low).
  • And finally (I thought), I had to put on special goggles that make you see like a drunk person and walk along a straight line (the lady at that test was genuinely surprised about how well I did).

After having the results filled in on my examination sheet and filling in a questionnaire on daily life habits, I proceeded to the actual advise corner, where another, final measurement awaited.

  • I had to put my bare left foot in a device that emits a supersonic tone through bone to measure how fast it gets through. The slower, the better: that means your bone structure is not porous or weak (I was at the top of the curve for my age, so all is well with my bones).

That’s when I was finally allowed to sit down at a table to talk with one of two nutrition experts, to talk about my habits and wether and how I should change them with regard to the results from the tests.

daigaku-seikyo-shokuseikatsugaido
From the cover of University Co-op’s “Shokuseikatsu gaido” leaflet, distributed in May 2018.

Naturally, being a teetotal and non-smoker, no concerns were voiced about such things. The gist of the lady’s advice, however, came down to “Let’s grow some fat!”, and, unsurprisingly, “Let’s make some muscles!” In addition to these two calls to action (which I am currently putting to practice), I received more detailed nutrition tips on my examination sheet, and even a booklet that elaborates in even more detail, with different tips depending on wether one has to gain or lose weight.

One thing that was holding me back from stuffing up properly here in Japan, was the high price of many fruits and vegetables. Having been here for two months, I am starting to know where to look for cheaper food, as well as realising that healthy food will simply take up a slightly larger part of my daily budget in Japan, compared to Belgium. The effect of the high price of vegetables is especially noticeable in salads, which tend to contain much less variety (and quantity) than their Belgian counterparts, at least for the same price. The same goes for fruit salads. Also, despite being in a country famous for being dotted with convenience stores on every street corner, I happen to live in a neighbourhood with almost no supermarkets or restaurants in the vicinity (and I’m trying to save on public transport expenses).

Be that as it may, last week’s Nutrition Corner was the examination and the advice I always needed. It was complete, professional, cheap, accessible and clear. I am now following a muscle-building fitness plan from StrongLifts, doing workouts three times a week, and applying the nutritional advice I received to my daily diet. This should all help with muscle-building and better skin flexibility. According to the advice, I need high doses of protein and fat from meat, fish, eggs as well as food high in caloric density such as almonds, peanuts, and good quantities of rice, pasta, different kinds of noodles, and a rich selection of fruits and vegetables, especially kiwis, mandarins, oranges and salads, broccoli, eggplant and avocado. Skinny people, take note! Let’s also not forget those trusty bananas which, luckily, are of the cheapest fruits in Japan.

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