As we’ve discussed before, there’s so much more to Japanese cuisine than just noodles. But there’s no denying the soft spot that the world has in its heart for Japanese ramen. The rich noodle soup is a booming business, with more stores than ever appearing, not just in Japan, but worldwide. Eating ramen is an almost obligatory ritual for first-time tourists to Japan.
However, just because ramen is good doesn’t mean it’s good for you. A steady stream of the soupy stuff could have a detrimental impact on your health. And a new research study says the impact might be worse than we previously thought.
Ramen = Stroke?!
The study from a Japanese research team was published in English in BMC’s Nutrition Journal. The study looked at prefectures with the highest concentration of ramen shops. After adjusting for both age and other restaurant types, they correlated this with data on incidences of stroke and heart attack.
The result: Researchers say they found higher incidences of stroke in prefectures with a large number of ramen shops. Among the prefectures in the top 10 in terms of most ramen shops in Japan, six – Aomori, Akita, Yamagata, Niigata, Tochigi, and Kagoshima – were also in the top 10 for incidences of stroke. (On the plus side, researchers found no correlation between heart attack and ramen. Which is weird, because I’ve had ramen that’s so good I thought I’d have a heart attack…)
This data, however, doesn’t necessarily imply a direct connection between eating ramen and suffering a stroke. As researcher Fujimoto Shigeru ( 藤本茂 ) conceded, the eating habits of people in these areas could be a huge factor. Most of the high stroke/ramen correlation prefectures were also either high consumers or salt, or high consumers of products containing salt, such as soy sauce. High salt consumption has been tied to a deficiency in potassium, which regulates blood pressure.
Other unhealthy habits, such as alcohol consumption, could also be a factor. The co-location of unhealthy habits might also factor in. In the groups I’ve caroused with, it hasn’t been uncommon to swallow down a bowl of ramen after a night of drinking. That’s a double whammy of unhealthfulness that’s sure to put a strain on one’s brain.
Go on Eating Ramen (And Other Things, Too)
I’m very interested in healthy living. However, as a rule, I hate when certain foods are stereotyped as “bad for you.” As Paracelsus said, the dose makes the poison. Eating healthy as a consistent habit doesn’t mean forever swearing off hamba-gu or korokke. It just means eating such things in moderation.
One person who’d agree with this (at least when it comes to ramen) is blogger Ricebag. In a long piece on the health consequences of eating ramen, RB argues that the noodle-y goodness isn’t as bad as its reputation. An ordinary bowl of ramen tops out around 700 calories. That can fit squarely into any adult’s daily caloric consumption, he argues.
RB also adds that this doesn’t hold in all cases. If you’re eating something like chiiyu ramen (鶏油), which is made with rendered chicken fat, you’re getting a ton of additional calories. But even something like Jiro Ramen – a chain known for its huge, gut-busting portions – won’t, by itself, overload you with calories.
RB gives a fairly full-throated defense of ramen. However, they also point out its obvious deficiencies, such as its low dietary fiber and super-high sodium content. They offer some tips for stepping around these nutritional landmines:
- Moderate what you eat after slurping down a huge bowl of ramen. (RB even suggests not eating for 24 hours after a bowl of something titanic like Jiro ramen.)
- Make sure your other meals are delivering enough vitamins, minerals, and dietary fiber to balance out ramen’s general paucity.
- Leave some of the salty soup behind, and drink water, coffee, and tea to help purge whatever salt you’ve consumed.
- Supplement your meal with a vegetable drink (青汁; aojiru) or smoothie to add some fiber back into your diet. If you’re in Japan, you can easily buy such drinks in a jelly form you can carry around with you.
A Doctor’s Advice
Medical professionals in Japan have also weighed in on the question of how to eat ramen responsibly. In an article for Diamond Online, Dr. Makita Zenji (牧田善二) lays out some additional helpful tips.
Dr. Makita’s primary suggestion is not to skip out on the pork cutlets (チャーシュー; chaashuu) often served on top of ramen. You should eat this protein first, Dr. Makita argues, to minimize the impact of the noodles on your blood sugar levels. (Vegetarians can supplement with tofu, eggs, or another plant-based protein.) Dr. Makita also suggests steering clear of carbohydrate double-whammies, like eating tempura alongside ramen. The doctor also recommends a good, long walk after eating ramen.
None of this advice can hurt, to be sure. But as I said before, nothing works like good old-fashioned moderation. If ramen is an occasional treat in your life as opposed to a fixed daily meal, it can easily fit into a healthy lifestyle. After all, we all deserve to treat ourselves once in a while.