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With more knowledge and careful planning, eating a carbohydrate controlled diet while dining out in Japan is possible.
With more knowledge and careful planning, eating a carbohydrate controlled diet while dining out in Japan is possible. Image: Pattarisara Suvichanarakul/iStock
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Dining out in Japan for diabetics: Tips from a Tokyo dietitian

3 Comments
By Victoria Lindsay

Japan is renowned for its rich culinary heritage, enticing flavors, and unique dining experiences.

Yet for those with diabetes, dining out in Japan can prove to be more of a stressful experience than an enjoyable one. Foods high in carbohydrates such as rice and noodles feature prominently in many popular Japanese dishes. What’s more:  asking the restaurant to modify your order is generally frowned upon. Although commonplace in Western culture, these requests may come across as disrespectful to the chef or could make restaurant staff uncomfortable for fear of getting it wrong. All of this can lead to the avoidance of eating out altogether or to making poor dietary choices due to the frustration of not having easy, healthy options.

Although there is still room for improvement, the dining landscape in Japan is slowly becoming more friendly to those with dietary restrictions.

In addition, understanding what meal options are best suited for diabetics can also allow those who need to be carb-conscious the ability to enjoy eating out.

Below are several popular types of Japanese cuisine and ways to make them more diabetes-friendly by using some tips and tricks I’ve picked up while working as a dietitian in Tokyo. With careful planning and the following dietary advice, eating out with diabetes can be a satisfying experience after all.

1. Ramen

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The interior of a Tokyo ramen shop. Some noodles can be made with alternatives to flour to reduce carbohydrates. Image: masy/Pixta

After reading the title of this section, you may be wondering how it’s possible to make a bowl full of noodles more appropriate for those with diabetes. Thankfully, a low-carb alternative to traditional ramen noodles has emerged in the form of konnyaku noodles.

Konnyaku, which is made from the yam-like bulb of the konjac plant, develops a firm, chewy texture when mixed with water and other natural additives to make noodles. Naturally low in calories, konnyaku noodles are also high in a soluble fiber called glucomannan, which can help lower one’s blood sugar levels. Look for ramen made with konnyaku noodles at the popular ramen chain Afuri, which advertises the ability to substitute konnyaku noodles into any of their signature ramen dishes.

2. Sushi

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Sashimi (sushi without the rice) is a great option for diabetics dining out in Japan. Image: Satoshi K/iStock

While rice is indeed part of several types of sushi dishes, such as nigiri sushi (raw fish or seafood on top of a small mound of rice) or maki sushi (sushi rolls), there are a few low-carb options available at many sushi restaurants. Sashimi, or thinly sliced raw fish, is perfect for diabetics as it contains no carbohydrates, plenty of protein and healthy fats, too.

Another option appropriate for diabetics includes miso or clear broth soups, which tend to be low in calories and carbohydrates.

Lastly, look for the ability to order your sushi with half the amount of rice or with cauliflower rice. The half-size rice option is often available at popular sushi chains such as Kura Sushi. Gonpachi Nori Temaki in Tokyo offers cauliflower rice temaki (hand rolled sushi) for dine-in and takeaway.

3. Yakiniku

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Yakiniku (grilled meat) restaurants allow diners more control over their food, which may help diabetics adhere to their meal plan. Image: primeimages/iStock

Yakiniku, or grilled meat, commonly refers to the cuisine at restaurants where diners grill different cuts of meat and vegetables on a grill at their table, similar to Korean barbecue.

Because rice or noodles are served on the side, it is easy for diabetics to control their carbohydrate portions themselves or skip them altogether as they are not part of the main dish. The same is true for teppanyaki restaurants, which also feature grilled meat and vegetables but are prepared by a chef for diners instead.

4. Shabu shabu

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Diabetics can focus on choosing low carb, nutrient dense foods like shabu shabu with meat and vegetables when eating out. Image: Yuto photographer/iStock

Another easy-to-customize type of Japanese cuisine is shabu shabu, which refers to cooking pieces of thinly sliced meat and vegetables in boiling water or broth, followed by dipping them in sauce.

Like yakiniku, diners usually cook the meat and vegetables themselves, allowing for greater control and easier modifications of the dish to meet specific dietary needs. This means that diabetics can focus on eating more meat or tofu for protein and vegetables for fiber. Both protein and fiber have been shown to slow the rise of one’s blood sugar after eating, leading to a more balanced glycemic response.

More tips for diabetics in Japan

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Diabetics should test their blood sugar levels more frequently when eating unfamiliar foods. Image: OlenaMykhaylova/iStock

In addition, here are a few more general tips to help diabetics or those with blood sugar control issues better manage their glucose levels wherever they eat.

  1. Test frequently. Whenever you’re eating a new food – or are unsure of what exactly you’re eating – it’s wise to check your blood sugar levels more frequently. Doing so will help you better understand how what you eat impacts your blood sugar levels so that you can make adjustments.
  2. Take a walk. A 2022sports medicine meta-analysis showed that even short, two to five-minute walks after eating can significantly reduce blood sugar levels. With that in mind, skip the car or taxi and opt for a route home that allows more walking instead.
  3. Look up nutrition information online. Unlike other countries, Japan doesn’t typically list the calorie count of meals or any other nutrition information at the point of sale or while ordering. However, many chain restaurants do list nutrition information online, which can give carb-controlled diners an idea of what menu items best suit their dietary needs.

While dining out with diabetes in Japan can be challenging, using the above tips will help those who are carb-conscious discover more ways to explore Japanese cuisine. Armed with a better understanding of Japanese restaurants, the only challenge left will be deciding which delicious foods to eat next!

Victoria Lindsay, MS RD, is a registered dietitian and nutrition consultant working at Tokyo Medical & Surgical Clinic and her Tokyo-based private practice. To get in touch, please visit www.victorialindsayrd.com.

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3 Comments
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As always, TD1 and TD2 are covered in the same text. This is never a good idea, as treatments, and also diets are (potentially) different.

1 ( +3 / -2 )

Both protein and fiber have been shown to slow the rise of one’s blood sugar after eating, leading to a more balanced glycemic response.

Yeah, fiber is helpful in reducing the insulin spike from carbs. But no need for fiber if you avoid carbs completely.

The konnyaku noodles are better (for diabetics) than regular noodles, but they don't really provide anything, other than filling your stomach.

Personally, I would go for the yaki niku with fatty meats, avoiding the rice completely and minimizing the sweet dipping sauce.

Whenever I'm in Shizuoka pref., I make an effort to go to Sawayaka!

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

Yeah, fiber is helpful in reducing the insulin spike from carbs. But no need for fiber if you avoid carbs completely.

Any links to scientific consensuses that state that diabetics are safe to avoid fiber if they avoid carbs completely, and that completely avoiding carbs is a healthy diet long term?

Or is this more podcast bro science?

4 ( +6 / -2 )

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