Skip to main content


How the Japanese got so slim

But only until she’s 80% full. Getty

Boris Johnson has “given up on the nation’s waistline”, says Alice Thomson in The Times, delaying plans for more free school meals, taxes on sugar and salt, and a ban on “buy one get one free” deals on junk food. The PM believes “it’s impossible for a whole country collectively to go on a diet”. But he’s wrong. Back in the 1960s, Japan had a massive weight problem. Children were so “hooked on burgers, fries and sugar-laden cereals” that they struggled to squeeze under their desks; the country had the lowest life expectancy in the G7. But within just two decades, it had the “highest life expectancy in the world, the most centenarians and the lowest level of obesity among developed countries”.

How did they manage it? School lunches became free, and made with fresh ingredients light on meat, salt and sugar. Pupils walked to school from the age of five and weren’t allowed to take snacks until they were 15. Adults were encouraged to embrace hara hachi bu – eating until you’re only 80% full. Since 2008, those at risk of diabetes have been sent to diet classes, and “companies with more than a certain percentage of overweight employees” can be fined. Johnson would dismiss all this as a “hectoring nanny state”. What he “hasn’t grasped” – and what Japan did – is just how hard it is to lose weight alone. “If the nation shrinks, everyone gains.”