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Japanese Gain Weight, Lifespan Worries

The Japanese are getting fatter.

Nutritionists blame a shift away from traditional staples like sushi and soybean paste food to fast food and highly-processed snacks, reports CBS News' Lucy Craft (audio).

Rising rates of lifestyle-related illness like diabetes threaten Japan's Guinness-worthy lifespans — 86 years for women and 79 for men.

Consider 10-year-old Sayaka Oyama's former diet: spaghetti and meat sauce for lunch, chocolates and cookies for a snack, rice balls for dinner and sandwiches at nighttime classes. Late at night, she would slurp down some quick noodles before going to bed.

The diet had a predictable outcome — one that doctors are seeing more in Japan as the country leaves behind traditional food habits. At 9 years old, Sayaka stood 4 feet 2 inches and weighed 108 pounds, about 50 pounds over her ideal weight.

"I just love eating noodles. I get home tired from cram school, so I used to eat it all the time at night," explained the girl, who, like many Japanese children, takes evening classes to prepare for junior high entrance exams.

Sayaka is now trying to slim down in a sports program for overweight kids. She reflects a rise in obesity in Japan that is being blamed for diabetes and other health problems. Some fear the trend could one day jeopardize Japan's status as the home of the world's longest-living population.

"I don't know for how long Japan can maintain the world's highest longevity," says Yukio Yamori, director of the International Center for Research on Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Diseases. "If eating habits change, life expectancy will shorten and this has already been made clear."

Still, Japan's fat problem pales besides that of the U.S., reports Craft: While about one-third of Americans are obese, the rate for Japan is just 3 percent. Only 24 percent of Japanese aged 15 and older are believed to be overweight, compared to about 65 percent of adults in the United States.

But concern is growing over eating patterns like Sayaka's. Instead of the fish, rice and miso soup of their grandparents' generation, younger Japanese are increasingly wolfing down fast food like burgers, fried chicken and instant noodles.

Bad diets and less exercise create what psychologists say is a vicious cycle: Fat kids are increasingly picked on at school, get depressed and find solace in eating even more.

"Children these days shoulder a lot of concerns and stresses," says Yuriko Ota, a nutritionist who runs the program that Sayaka enrolled in last year. "I feel there are more obese kids that are gloomy and dark. It wasn't like this before."

Men in all age groups have grown heavier in the past two decades in Japan. The highest rate of obesity is among men in their 40s: 34 percent in 2003, up from 23 percent in 1980, according to the National Health and Nutrition Survey. While older women are also growing fatter, younger fashion-conscious women tend to be underweight.

Among children, 8 percent were obese or at risk of obesity in 2004, compared with fewer than 6 percent in 1980. In the United States, experts believe about 30 percent of kids are overweight.


Diabetes is a leading concern. While the number of deaths from the disease has fallen in the past decade, more than 2 million people are being treated for it in Japan — an increase of about 53 percent from 15 years ago. The number treated for high blood pressure has also grown about 9 percent in the past 10 years, the Health Ministry says.

Alarmed by the trend, the government released a new nutrition chart last summer that encourages eating more carbohydrates — such as rice — and vegetables as main sources of energy, while cutting down on meat to reduce the intake of fat. The chart specifically targets overweight males, singles and those raising children.

The government has set aside about $600,000 in the 2006-2007 budget to tackle child heft. The Health Ministry also plans to research the link between parents' lifestyles and overweight children, and support selected towns to promote healthier eating habits.

Heavy kids are also flocking to programs like Sayaka's in central Tokyo. Opened in 1985, the Health and Sports Class' one-year curriculum is split between sports and nutrition and health lessons for children and parents.

In a one-on-one monthly session, the parent and child are given specific instructions on how to improve their eating and living habits. Many continue on with the program even after their year ends.

Twenty years ago, it was hard to recruit 20 kids per class. Now, overweight children are waiting in line to get into the program, said Ota, the director.

For Sayaka, the hard work is paying off. She's grown more than 2 inches taller since starting a year ago but has kept her weight steady. Though she's still over her ideal weight, she's proud of her progress.

"I stopped eating noodles every night, and now I only eat it once a week, just Saturday and only for lunch," she said. "I didn't like veggies before, but now I try to put them in everyday meals."

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