Reflecting on Traditions for the New Year in America and Japan

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By KEIY MUROFUSHI, RD

The new year is viewed as the most important holiday of the year in the Japanese culture. There are numerous traditions practiced in Japanese culture to celebrate this festive time of year. In fact, it is valued so highly that businesses in Japan typically close for several days so that families can gather to spend time together.

Popular Japanese customs include sending New Year’s cards to friends, relatives and colleagues specially marked for delivery on Jan. 1 or visiting a shrine or temple for prayers and to purchase a new lucky charm in exchange for disposal of the past year’s lucky charm.

Houses are specially decorated for the new year, and traditional dishes called osechi-ryori are prepared for the celebration. Although the kinds of osechi dishes prepared vary from region to region in Japan, common dishes include mochi soup, simmered black soybeans, mashed sweet potato with chestnut and candied dried sardines.

Each dish and ingredient has a specific meaning for the new year, such as good health, good harvest, happiness, prosperity and long life. It is believed that yellow-colored dishes and ingredients symbolize prosperity and that various beans imply a wish for good health. Red or pink and white foods represent celebration colors.[i] Today, it’s also common to eat sashimi and sushi alongside non-Japanese foods.

Similarly, in the U.S., this time of the year offers an opportunity to spend time with family and friends, reflect on the past year’s achievements and failures, and look forward to the promise of a new beginning. In addition to countdown parties, champagne toasts and celebrations with fireworks to ring in New Year’s Day, one of the most popular customs Americans follow on this occasion is making resolutions to improve or better their health, finances and overall well-being in life.

For Japanese Americans, we are able to integrate traditional customs to celebrate the new year in a unique way. Specifically, we have a great opportunity to combine traditions that help keep us on track to a healthier lifestyle into the new year and beyond.

As a registered dietitian, I have a few tips to motivate you and your loved ones to make small lifestyle changes that can truly make an impact on your overall health and well-being:

1. Make a list of fruits, vegetables and lean proteins that you enjoy eating fresh or cooking with and work to incorporate them into your diet on a regular basis.

• Incorporating a variety of superfoods into your diet, such as kale, cabbage and avocado, can have great benefits such as stimulating the immune system, killing bacteria and viruses, and ingredients that have been linked to a reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

• Try incorporating these Japanese superfoods into your diet for added antioxidant benefits; cabbage, spinach (horenso), giant white radish (daikon), lotus root (renkon), burdock root (gobo), eggplant (nasu), green peppers (piman), pumpkin (kabocha), and sweet potato (satsumaimo).

2. As simple as it may sound, stay hydrated.

• Water keeps every part of your body working properly and helps keep your skin look and feel healthy.

• While water is always a great option, studies show that flavor encourages people to drink more. For those who love soda and other beverages, you don’t have to give up your favorites completely. It’s truly all about moderation. The Coca-Cola mini-can or 8-oz. bottle of Coca-Cola Life are great options.

• Adding seasonal fruits to water can also encourage/enhance hydration during the holidays. Try adding Fuji apple slices and cinnamon or strawberries and cherry blossom leaves to give a seasonal twist to flavored water.

3. Find fun ways to be active that fit your lifestyle. It’s important to integrate exercise into your daily routine no matter how hectic your schedule can get. It literally takes small steps to get healthy. For example, at work, get your body moving by taking the stairs instead of taking the elevator, or wear a pedometer to proactively track your steps per day.

• If you choose to indulge in your favorite foods from time to time, exercise can help balance that out as well.

As the new year approaches, please keep your health and well-being a top priority for your life and for the lives of those around you, including your family and community. Happy 2015!

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Keiy Murofushi is the director of clinical nutrition at LAC + USC Medical Center in Los Angeles.

[i] About.com: Japanese Food. “New Year’s Food.” http://japanesefood.about.com/od/japanesenewyearfood/a/newyearfood.htm. Last accessed November 2014.

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